Review: Juan of the Dead

Posted on May 30, 2012 by Ben

Review by Ben Bussey

Certain key things may come to mind when we mention Cuba: missile crisis, cigars, Buena Vista Social Club… but, to date, zombie movies probably wouldn’t pop up on that list. Well, they do now, thanks to writer/director Alejandro Brugués, who brings us what is said to be the first ever Cuban horror film (a statement I can neither confirm nor refute, owing to my previously hinted-at ignorance of most things Cuban). Now, as JC DeLeon said in his review from last year’s Fantastic Fest, there may be a gut impulse on hearing the title to dismiss Juan of the Dead as yet another run-of-the-mill copycat of that certain other zombie comedy whose name we need not mention (not out of any disdain for the film itself, but simply because it gets mentioned in reference to every bloody comedy horror film that comes along these days; and anyway, in the case of Juan of the Dead it’s particularly obvious given there’s only about two letters difference in the title). We might also be put off by a sense of zombie exhaustion; the living dead have been painfully ubiquitous this past decade, on screens both big and small, in gaming and in print. It feels as though one in every three new horror films of late has had a title ending ‘- of the Dead,’ and the bulk of them have been considerably less than stellar (Diary, anyone…?) In this climate, and given that it’s reputedly the first film of its kind to be produced in its country, it would be easy indeed to view Juan of the Dead as nothing more than a novelty.

Well folks, you can cast those anxieties aside. Juan of the Dead is a truly masterful comedy horror, almost certainly the finest there has been since… that other one. It’s charming, witty, engaging, and dependent on your temperament it may very well have you barking with laughter from start to finish. Sure, the film may be self-consciously designed to play to international audiences with its plentiful nods to pop culture – it’s very self-aware of its zombie movie heritage, nodding to many of the greats without lapsing into Scream-esque smugness – but it also wears its unique national identity on its sleeve. As Keri remarked after the screening at York City Screen, it tells us more about modern life in Cuba than the news ever does, in Britain at least.

Right, synopsis time: our hero Juan (Alexis Díaz de Villegas) and his best mate Lazaro (Jorge Molina) are fortysomething layabouts who live their lives a bottle at a time, scraping a living by petty crime with the aid of drag queen China (Jazz Vilá), gentle giant Primo (Eliecer Ramírez) and Lazaro’s son California (Andros Perugorría). They’ve got the sun, the sea, the sauce, and even the odd bit of illicit sex, but anyone can tell Juan is less than content. For starters, his wife has long since left him, and his daughter Camila (Andrea Duro) wants nothing to do with him. However, opportunity sometimes presents itself in unexpected ways, such as when the town – and, it seems, the whole of Cuba – gets overrun by what the media call ‘dissidents,’ who seem to bear all the hallmarks of being dead, aside from the fact that they still move and they try to eat the living. Ever the entrepreneur, Juan spots a gap in the market, and puts his crew in business as zombie killers for hire. But despite their best efforts, it soon becomes clear that the ‘dissidents’ are in the majority, and the only option may be to escape.

As with most modern zombie movies, no efforts are made here to re-invent the wheel narrative-wise. The classic set-up is used as the jumping off point, and the film lives or dies on its performances, gags and set-pieces. Happily, all of these are of a very high standard indeed. No, it’s never remotely scary, but that isn’t necessarily the point in a film of this nature; the emphasis instead is squarely on having fun. And boy, is it fun. The confrontations between Juan and co. and the walking dead get progressively more ridiculous, the gang revelling in their new line of work, honing their zombie-killing skills until they border on the superhuman; which, in the case of Juan and Lazaro, is just hilarious due to how completely unlike action heroes they look, with de Villegas’s gangly, skinny frame and Molina’s proudly framed middle-aged spread. Even in the case of the younger and more physically impressive members of the team, there’s plenty of humour in the little character quirks, like the imposing Primo going faint at the sight of blood, and California being so vain he changes shirts mid-battle scene. There’s a wonderful chemistry between the cast that really ties the film together, and I suspect this above all else will feed the cult status the film is sure to attain; they’re people you feel better for being around, and following their exploits makes the viewer feel part of the gang for 90 minutes or so.

Juan of the Dead doesn’t lack for emotional content either. The strained relationship between Juan and Camila, and to a lesser extent that of Lazaro and California, gives the film real heart; these are two fathers who want the best for their kids and know they have never really provided it. The beacon of hope on the horizon always seems to be Miami, and the film plays heavily on the internal conflict of whether to stay close to one’s roots, or seek a fresh start on fresh soil; that’s a theme that should resonate with many, Cuban or not. There’s also an underlying melancholy to Juan and Lazaro’s friendship; these men know their best years are behind them, and have doubts as to whether they’ve made the best use of the time. Happily, this side of things is never overemphasised, and there’s always a suitably ribald gag and/or a gory confrontation around the corner to ward off any burgeoning sentimentality.

It really is a near-perfect balance of the elements that make a great popcorn movie: thrills, laughs, action, gore, character, emotion, and even a dash of social commentary, all measured out perfectly. It’s even got a bit of sex appeal in its arsenal, with the odd moment of lad-pleasing nudity, and in particular the presence of Andrea Duro’s Camila. Shapely young Latina, vest, cut-down jeans, edged weapons… yes please. And I daresay those who prefer the menfolk will not be displeased by the sight of Andros Perugorría either. However, their presence does rather beg the question of what the mothers of these characters looked like, as we can be damn sure these kids didn’t get their sex appeal from their fathers…

Once again: ignore your zombie fatigue. No, Juan of the Dead doesn’t rewrite the rule book, but it does prove that there’s life in the old genre yet, so long as the filmmakers put in the right amount of heart, imagination and elbow grease. Alejandro Brugués and co have done just that, and their film greatly deserves the international attention it has gathered, not simply for the curiosity value of being the first Cuban movie of its kind, but for being a world-class comedy horror in its own right. Simply put: not to be missed.

Juan of the Dead is on limited release in UK cinemas now, and then comes to DVD on 4th June, from Metrodome.

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