Fantastic Fest 2011 Review: Juan of the Dead
Review by J.C. De Leon
I know what you’re thinking. Juan of the Dead. You’re thinking “with a name like that, did the writer/director even TRY to come up with something original?” While it may not be the most original film, (but really, what zombie film today is completely original anyway?), it’s certainly one of the most entertaining films of this year’s Fantastic Fest. It may even top out as one of the most entertaining and highly rewatchable films of 2011. Its influences are obvious, but writer/director Alejandro Brugués didn’t make a remake of the obvious film you’re thinking of. Instead, he’s taken his lifelong love of genre and horror films and with that love has crafted not a remake, not even really an homage to horror/zombie films of the past, but a love letter of sorts to those films.
In the country of Cuba, we are introduced to Juan as he and his best friend Lázaro are out fishing, when they find a body floating in the ocean. It appears dead, but when it comes back to life a little harpoon to the head quickly erases that problem and Juan and Lázaro agree to never mention it again. Juan’s made his living out of doing nothing, but he is after all a self-described survivor. When strange things start happening in Cuba and all of a sudden most of the population turns into flesh eating “dissidents”, being the opportunist he is, Juan decides to start a business ‘Juan de los Muertos, we kill your beloved ones” is the slogan for the new venture.
To begin with, the most impressive thing about this film is the scale of it. Cuba isn’t a country where a film can be made very easily, and Alejandro Brugués makes excellent use of everything at his disposal. There are scenes with huge amounts of extras, all done with extremely impressive zombie makeup effects, to which a great amount of credit goes to the effects team on this production. Like most zombie films today the events are a result of an epidemic of some sort and there are various types of makeup to give every single zombie in the film a different look, which only make the scale more impressive. Best of all, if you like your zombies slow or fast, either way you’ll be left pretty satisfied.
There isn’t too much in the way of character development, except for Juan of course, but despite that the script is still incredibly smart. The rest of the characters in the film are incredibly memorable and totally unique despite that lack of development. It’s definitely a different type of supporting cast than has been seen in other zombie films.
Juan of the Dead is also almost completely a comedy, there is very little that is scary about the film. There are some spectacularly funny moments in the film, particularly the rally speech given by Juan in which he asks a very important question, one that’s been on the minds of zombie fans for years.
Juan of the Dead isn’t Alejandro Brugués’ first feature, but this is his first horror film and it’s obvious that he’s been watching horror films his whole life. I’ve avoided it up until this point but yes, from the name and a couple of sequences Shaun of the Dead is very much a big influence, but so are films like Dead Alive, any Romero film. Just name it and you’ll think of it while seeing this. What could have easily been a weak attempt at remaking a film that fans of this genre love has instead turned into a film destined to be worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as some of the classics. Alejandro Brugués is a name horror fans should embrace as one of their own who appreciates and loves this genre, and knows how to properly pay tribute to it as well.