Zombies have been rife with metaphor ever since George A. Romero first turned dead cannibals into representatives of social excess. But the purpose of the critique now varies from project to project. In the enjoyable zombedy “Juan of the Dead,” director Alexander Brugués uses the onslaught of lurching corpses to toy with the country’s revolutionary history and struggling underclass. Set in a Havana beset by devastation, Brugués (making his sophomore feature after 2006’s “Personal Belongings”) has chosen an easy target and shoots straight. “Juan of the Dead” is a goofy editorial cartoon peppered with gore.
Alex Días de Villegas plays the Juan in question, an unemployed hustler always seeking the next odd job, while trying to smooth over his relationship with his estranged daughter. The initial scene make it clear that danger lurks on the periphery, when Juan goes fishing for junk and inadvertently harpoons a floating zombie between the eyes. But then the movie settles into Juan’s messy existence, which mainly involves a whole lot of nothing special. By the time the zombie outbreak arrives, Brugués has successfully created a tired, frustrated comedic universe strained from the pressure of economic despair. After a community meeting ends with a familiar face from the town devouring various citizens until a strike to the head puts him down, “Juan of the Dead” arrives at the destination it hinted at with that opening encounter.
Juan rounds up a motley group that includes his daughter, his best pal Lázaro (Jorge Molina) and a feisty transvestite to get their bearings as the undead begin to take over the town. Subtlety is not writer-director Brugués’ strong point, but he wastes no time savaging his target: News reports blame the events on “dissident groups paid by the U.S. government” and Juan sees Havana’s speedy descent into destruction in historical terms, comparing it to Cuba’s “Special Period.” If he survived a decade of extreme poverty, an army of zombies should be a breeze.
He also discovers a handy business opportunity. As Havana goes up in flames, Juan goes into business. “Juan of the Dead” unapologetically borrows a page from “Ghostbusters,” with its hero setting up shop as a zombie exterminator. (The company slogan: “We kill your beloved ones.”) Milking Havana’s dwindling survivors for whatever they have left, Juan commits himself to a hilariously vain endeavor. What’s he going to do with the money he makes on each kill? Irony pervades every scene of “Juan of the Dead” and sustains its zany energy.
However, there’s just enough potential in the strength of the material to make its flaws stand out. Occasionally too blatantly silly and weighed down with stereotypes (unlike Juan, an entirely believable character), “Juan of the Dead” suffers from rampant campiness. One of the reasons that its obvious namesake, “Sean of the Dead,” left such a mark on the zombie genre was by playing it straight as both a romantic comedy and a zombie movie. “Juan of the Dead” features a stable hero stuck inside a listless spoof. Amateurish humor and one-note gags hold down the potential for a fleshed out work.
Still, Brugués litters the story with enjoyable slapstick that makes many of its flaws forgivable. A stand-out bit finds Juan handcuffed to a zombie and evading its attacks by pulling it through the motions of a tango. The clichéd development where a likable member of the group suffers a zombie bite turns into a clever punchline when the source of the wound comes into question.
By never turning into a legitimate horror movie, “Juan of the Dead” makes for the rare case where the zombies exclusively function as a metaphor rather than an unstoppable menace with bonus value as social commentary. This is a movie about Cuba, not the Cuban undead. When Juan’s friend Lázaro accidentally shoots a non-zombified survivor from afar, he’s told, “You have to tell the good ones from the bad.” The response is delivered with a sigh: “In this country, it has always been difficult.” Brugués guides the material to the ultimate sarcastic finish. Juan evolves into a devoted warrior with nothing to lose, becoming the hero of a lost cause. In his case, the revolution is personal.
criticWIRE grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Having already closed deals in several markets, “Juan of the Dead” is likely to wind up with a midsize distributor like IFC or Magnolia, where it will perform its biggest numbers on VOD. In Latin American markets, however, its potential for commercial success is sizable.