Studio:E1 Entertainment Year: 2011 Cast: Alexis Díaz de Villegas, Jorge Molina, Andrea Duro, Andros Perugorría, Jazz Vilá Director: Alejandro Brugués Release Date: August 14, 2012 Rating: Not Rated for (violence, nudity, adult language) Run Time: 01h:36m:00s Genre(s): horror, comedy, zombie
"Juan of the Dead. We kill your loved ones. How can I help you?" - Juan (Alexis Díaz de Villegas)
How will Havana respond to the zombie apocalypse? This zombie comedy from Cuba is sometimes scattershot, but also pointed, gory, and funny.
Movie Grade: B
DVD Grade: B-
We’ve seen the effects of the coming zombie apocalypse on the United States (many, many times). We’ve also seen the undead rise in the UK through the already-classic Shaun of the Dead, and well as in 28 Days Later (yes, I know, not technically zombies). Italy hasn’t been spared either, but I don’t think we’ve ever seen the dead rise in any great numbers in Cuba. Since the rest of us have had to deal with brainless hordes countless times since the 60s, Cuban director Alejandro Brugués clearly feels that it is high time that we get to see how the largely gun-less Havana responds to a takeover by the living dead. The result is sometimes scattershot, but pointed, gory, and funny.
Juan (Alexis Díaz de Villegas) is clever, 40, and extraordinarily lazy, spending his days working as little possible with his best friend Lázaro (Jorge Molina) and their pals. As the undead begin to rise in Havana, they do the best they can to avoid noticing. When things get out of control, though, Juan and his estranged daughter, along with Lázaro and the rest of their ill-matched and ill-prepared gang industriously see a business opportunity in this newly free market. “Juan of the Dead” is born...they’ll come and kill your loved ones so that you don’t have to. In spite of their quick-learned martial arts skills and inventive methods of dispatch, they are spectacularly incompetent, inadvertently killing as many live people as zombies. They’re still the only game in town, though, and so a roaring success. As Havana crumbles, Juan is forced, much against his better instincts, to become a hero. Juan’s ultimately a good guy, and its from him that the movie gets its heart. The few poignant moments don’t always blend well in tone with the (clever) gore, or with the too-obvious (often homophobic) humor (look, Lázaro’s balls are hanging out of his shorts!) but keep the violence from feeling ugly, and allows us to root for Juan and the slackers on his team.
In the now extensive pantheon of zombie films, this one lands somewhere in the middling range. Many of its tricks are well work by this point, and, let’s face it: we’re running out of ways to kill zombies. The blow-to-the-head rule about killing the undead adds to zombie effectiveness, since you can do just about anything else to one and it’ll still run, walk, shamble, or crawl at you. It’s also limiting, though...one of the genre’s core visual rules involving hitting, shooting, or stabbing dead people in the head, and after dozens of films, there are only so many types of severe head trauma remaining. Still, Juan has a visual sense of humor that sets it apart a bit, as when a building’s rickety elevator becomes a means of dispatching the formerly sweet old lady from upstairs, or when a handcuffing leads to an elaborate zombie-fight/tango number. Where the movie really stands out, though, is in its politics. Zombie films with nothing to say tend to feel like a waste, ever since George Romero invented the genre and proved in film after film that the living dead are pretty good vehicles for the type of social commentary that most commercial films wouldn’t poke with a stick. Argentinian-born director Alejandro Brugués has plenty to say about his adopted home of Cuba. In Juan of the Dead, zombies become “dissidents” as Cubans ignore the undead threat for as long as possible, conditioned and desensitized for five decades by warnings that America was due to invade at any moment. Even as the numbers of zombies grow, and Havana gradually collapses, Cubans continue in their daily routine...naturally, the buses continue to run on time, even when half of the passengers are dead. A rally of solidarity against the “imperialists” turns into a smorgasbord. The film takes its own stab at the Shaun of the Dead visual gag of a city of shambling zombies being indistinguishable at first from oblivious commuters on a typical day. And, naturally, the survivors of Havana head off in rafts when things get too tough. The parody is affectionate in its way, but still bites. Shaun is a clear and obvious inspiration here (along with Romero’s American films before it), but the formula works, and the locale makes all the difference. I’d watch one of these from every country on the planet. Can you imagine a zombie comedy set against Putin’s Russia? France? Japan? What’s required are filmmakers with a love of the genre, sharp political instincts, and tongues planted firmly in cheeks.
As for the DVD itself, the film is in Spanish with optional (default) English-language subtitles. The only extras are a couple of trailers and a fun but nonessential making-of, which is disappointing: a look at Cuban filmmaking, especially regarding so critical a film, would have been fascinating. Several deleted scenes are also included, along with comments from the cast and director. The Dolby stereo audio is unspectacular, but entirely effective. The film itself is typically dark with a muted palette of browns and grays, so it’s a good thing that the video presentation here is solid: contrast is strong enough to ensure that we’re never lost. Juan of the Dead has become a minor cult item just by making the film-festival rounds, and deserves the reputation that it’s already gained. The zombie genre hasn’t quite run out of steam yet.