Written and Directed by: Alejandro Brugués
Starring: Alexis Díaz de Villegas, Jorge Molina, and Andrea Duro
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"Juan of the dead, we kill your beloved ones, how may I help you?"
Cuban director Alejandro Brugués has pulled off a number of feats with Juan of the Dead. Not only has he been able to craft a biting, political satire within the constraints of an oppressive government, but he’s also been able to find something new to say within the shambling zom-com genre. Most impressive, however, is that what he has to say extends beyond the shadow of Castro, as his film achieves a universal appeal with its musings on politics, patriotism, and selflessness.
Juan (Alexis Díaz de Villegas) is a small time criminal in Havana who is trying to reform his roguish ways and reconcile with his estranged daughter (Andrea Duro). Along with his buddy Lazaro (Jorge Molina), he spends his days scheming and leering at women; however, this existence is soon interrupted by a zombie uprising. Whereas most of the population attempts to flee the island, Juan and his band of underdogs stay behind to take advantage of the situation by opening shop: for a fair fee, they’ll kill a customer’s undead loved ones so they don’t have to.
This film’s title will immediately recall Shaun of the Dead, which is fair. Similarities between the two abound: like Edgar Wright’s film, Brugués’s film bubbles with genuine wit and affable characters who drive the narrative. At the center are our two knavish leads, Juan and Lazaro, who spend much of the film trading barbs; however, the authenticity of their friendship is never in question. In fact, their closeness leads to one of the film’s more riotous scenes where the two are forced to explore the deBruguéspths of their devotion to each other in oral fashion. Their ragtag outfit is comprised of both men’s children, Camilla and California, which provides an avenue for the requisite romantic subplot that’s a bit undercooked. Rounding out the group are a tranny and his big, burly African lover who faints at the sight of blood (which means he spends his zombie apocalypse blindfolded). This colorful group is infectious, and the film doesn’t gloss over their unscrupulous qualities--they’re sometimes bad people who put their stolen beer above the needs of an old man in a wheelchair. This comes dangerously close to being a false note, but the charming performances keep us on their side.
It also helps that their exploits are sometimes very funny. While some of the timing of the witty dialogue is lost in translation, the comedic chemistry among the cast is obvious. Many of the gags are visual in nature anyway; for example, an early encounter between Juan, Lazaro, and California and one of the undead feels inspired by The Fearless Vampire Killers. In fact, the finicky trio mistakes the flesh eater as that sort of undead at first, which means they have to empty out all the methods of dispatching bloodsuckers before they figure out what they’re dealing with. The clever script consistently finds hysterical moments for these world-weary band to stumble into, but it smartly takes these characters seriously and at the center.
As such, the actual zombie sequences are as perilous as they are fun. Brugués especially finds a lot of inventive, entertaining methods of dispatching the undead throughout numerous montage sequences that are littered with severed limbs and piles of entrails. It never quite reaches the sick, outrageous heights of something like Dead Alive, but there’s a punchy video-game quality to the action that works. The effects are fine, especially when you consider the obviously low-budget origins; CGI blood gets splashed around a lot, but there’s still an admirable scrappiness to how the production manages to unleash the apocalypse on Havana. Besides that, this is a genre flick with a fanboy heart firmly entrenched in the right place; astute fans will catch references to Zombie and the aforementioned Dead Alive.
The politics and themes of Juan of the Dead manage to elevate it above standard zombie far. Politics and the undead have been married for decades, but, in this case, they’re one in the same. The walking corpses seem to be a representation for the country itself, which has been reduced to a lifeless husk under the weight of fifty years of oppression. Some of the dialogue gets very on-the-nose and unsubtle about this--there are at least a couple of lines that explicitly spell out that the population doesn’t look or seem much different now that they’re all rotting. Brugués bares some sharp, satiric fangs with the governmental and media response to the uprising: the undead are ironically referred to as “dissidents” who have been triggered by a secret American attack. They repeatedly insist that everything is fine as Havana burns to the ground.
Juan himself is woven beautifully into all of this. Taken phonetically, the title is “one of the dead,” and that’s what Juan is--he’s a lifeless man who has been driven to a life of petty thievery and selfishness. He wrongly refers to his zombie-killing service as altruistic; in reality, he’s just a man capitalizing on a bad situation (it’s here that we see some anti-capitalist leanings, which is important). This is what the plebian Cuban experience has been reduced to; there’s a scene early on where Juan’s daughter insists that, like Cuba, he will never change. Part of his journey involves him learning to do things not for profit but for the common good of others. This is a bitingly socialist message coming from a Communist nation that has sent much of its population scurrying away for a better life.
Juan of the Dead eventually posits another solution to overcoming not only the undead, but what these particular undead represent. It’s easy to want to give up on your country and leave it ravaged by various forces, be it zombies, autocrats, or even destructive bi-partisanship. Much more difficult is staying behind to fight for it, as true revolution must begin with people like Juan. Ultimately, this is a very patriotic movie whose message transcends borders. Like many frustrated patriots, Brugués is understandably disappointed in his country, but he us with the hopeful insistence that the common man has an inner worth that’s just waiting to be discovered. When Juan realizes this, it’s a fine moment; the film’s final lines are perfect, as he is now simply Juan--not Juan of the dead. Just Juan, and that’s enough. Buy it!
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