Juan of the Dead (Spanish: Juan de los Muertos), 2011.
Written and Directed by Alejandro Brugués.
Starring Alexis Díaz de Villegas, Jorge Molina and Andrea Duro.
Cuba is under attack by a zombie invasion, so Juan sets up a business killing your loved one.
The best zombie films aren’t actually about zombies. In fact, such films rarely even use the ‘Z’ word. Instead, they give form to a trend in society. Dawn of the Dead lamented consumerism; Shaun of the Dead poked fun at what it means to be British. Juan of the Dead, which is set in Cuba, the zombies are repeatedly referred to as “dissident groups paid by the American government”.
“You’re just like this country,” Camila (Andrea Duro) tells her wayward father, Juan (Alexis Díaz de Villegas), “things happen to you, but you don’t change” – just like the old Cuban cars, the ‘yank tanks’, that haven’t received new parts since the trade embargo imposed by the United States in 1962; just like the stalled Communist revolution, celebrating its 50th anniversary; just like the decaying undead that now wonder Havana’s streets. Zombies aren’t zombies. They’re an articulation of Cuba’s stagnated revolution.
Which makes Juan of the Dead sound rather lofty. Quite the opposite, the above is the film’s subtext, and it’s more subtle than I’ve made it sound. Juan is a comedy with horror elements (it isn’t scary at all). There’s one particularly good gag when the first zombie is encountered. After a string of garlic has failed to kill it, Juan stares at it for a while before someone suggests… silver bullets?
Juan, our titular hero, is lazy and prefers laying about to work. He’s divorced with an estranged daughter. He’s a petty criminal who sleeps with married women. He’s into easy money, scams and cons. And the company he keeps is even worse.
Lazaro (Jorge Malina) is his right hand man. Lazaro is also his own right hand man, when during one scene he masturbates looking through an attractive female neighbor’s window. Vladi (Andros Perugorría) is his son, and he steals happily from the recently deceased.
As Cuba falls to the zombie epidemic, the three set up a new business – Juan of the Dead, we kill your loved ones! Their phone rings off the hook, a steady stream of relatives wanting their undead loved ones finally put to rest. 40 pesos a go, discount rates for children and old people. They make a killing.
And they do so in increasingly inventive ways. The film takes great pride in its zombie death montages, flicking between each of the team disposing of their zombie clients. Heads explode, jaws are ripped from their hinges. But if Shaun investigated what the British would do when faced with a zombie holocaust (go down the pub), the Cubans response is a little less endearing: they attempt to profit, starting shady business ventures with dubious morals. “You can’t charge people for that!” Juan’s daughter tells him, horrified. “We’re Cubans. That’s what we do when things get tough.”
The film continues this way for quite some time, allowing it’s flaws to bubble to the surface, like zombie hands bursting through a grave’s topsoil. Thankfully, Juan’s sense of humour distracts somewhat from them, but there’s no avoiding the film’s episodic, slightly repetitive structure. An actual purpose – the gang’s need to escape from Cuba (but only after business has died down *zombie groan*) – only materialises half an hour before the end. Before then, it is simply more and more inventive ways to dispose of zombies.
The film isn’t as technically sound as it should be, considering how expensive a few of the set pieces appear. There’s nothing cheaper than bad CGI, and Juan has more than its fair share of examples. Such scenes should not have been filmed. They are far too ambitious.
Neither is the film scary. It’s a comedy first and foremost. But more significantly, Juan balks at any build of tension. Nothing is ever truly at stake, and several moments that deserve poignancy are treated as jokes.
However, Juan of the Dead is an immensely funny film, and it possesses a genuinely interesting subtext. So if you see only one Cuban zombie film this year, make it this Juan.
[because ‘Juan’ sounds like ‘one’]
Flickering Myth Rating: Film ★ ★ / Movie ★ ★ ★