“Juan of the Dead,” Cuba’s first zombie movie, has garnered attention just for its mere existence — a zom-com shot on location in Havana! What a new and exciting cinematic oddity! Despite, and because of its exotic origins, “Juan of the Dead” lives up to the hype, more than delivering the goods as a raucous horror comedy, deeply schooled in the zombie genre, with a uniquely Cuban flavor.
A Spanish/Cuban co-production directed by Cuban native Alejandro Brugués, half of the pleasure in the film is enjoying the scenery and grand architecture of this majestic, dilapidated city. Havana truly is one of the characters in the film, and plays an important story role. But first, we need to meet our middle-aged heroes: the lanky, laconic Juan (Alexis Díaz de Villegas), a survivor of most everything, and the rotund Lazaro (Jorge Molina), his goofy sidekick, who fills out a wetsuit like nobody’s business. Juan and Lazaro are out on a fishing expedition, enjoying their Communist life of leisure (“Why would I want to go to Miami? I have to work there”) when a mysterious body floats upon their raft. They dispose of the reanimated corpse with a spearfishing gun to the eye, and brush it off as a random incident. This sets into motion the efficient, yet detailed introduction to these guys and the characters in their lives at a blistering speed that never sacrifices the funny. Juan and Lazaro are both dads, to Camila (Andrea Duro) and Vladi California (Andros Perugorría), respectively, young adults with minds of their own and complicated relationships with their fathers. After this set up and establishment of their environs, zombies quickly attack without much introduction or fanfare. But, it’s not really needed, this film is built on the tradition of zombie lore, and the fun part is the zombie killing anyway.
And kill zombies they do. Juan puts his survivalist mind to work and sets up a zombie killing black market business. Hilariously, throughout the film, the government-controlled radio keeps referring to the flesh eaters as “U.S. funded political dissidents.” There’s plenty of humor of both the political satire and zombie genre kind. Some of the kills are incredibly clever, inventive and hysterically funny, not to mention Juan and Lazaro’s reactions and interactions with the living dead. Transvestite China (Jazz Vilá) and her squeamish hunk Primo (Eliecer Ramírez) join the crew, and China delivers both blistering epithets and rocks slingshotted into the domes of zombies. “Juan of the Dead” doesn’t pull any punches, fully exploiting the sexual, political and horrific humor to be had in this situation, but it never feels gross or inappropriate. All the leads give performances that are funny and full of heart; you truly love everyone in the crew, even with their sometimes bad behavior. But, to give away the many plot twists, turns, and outrageous comedic moments in a review would be criminal.
The film is stylish and has real moments of pulsing energy, particularly in some of the montages of zombie killing. While there are some clever kills and moments of humor in interacting with the zombies, the group action scenes are confusingly staged and not particularly interestingly shot. The practical effects work for the genre, but the After Effects-style CGI is a bit cheesy. But those things aren’t so important if the story and characters are in place and consistent, and “Juan of the Dead” is not short on that. Everything set up in the opening sequence is paid off beautifully, and the characters remain at the forefront of the story.
Certainly, there’s a political message to “Juan of the Dead” that elevates it to something more than just a zombie flick, but it’s also a really fun, unique example of the genre. It’s steeped in Cuban culture both in their laid back Caribbean style — rum is number one on the essentials list for the zombie apocalypse — and in the years of Communist rule. These zombie survivors are have already survived the worst, particularly Juan, and are the most resourceful, scrappy zombie fighters in cinema. But in addition to its country’s flavor, it speaks well to the genre conventions of classic horror films. When during the Q&A, director Brugués mentioned his favorite film at age 8 was “Evil Dead,” it made perfect sense. “Juan of the Dead” achieves that tonal balance of scares, gore, laughs and heart that “Evil Dead” perfected and is a difficult thing to master. The film also manages some affecting poignant moments in addition to all the action. “Juan of the Dead” is a truly original take on a well-known genre, and a helluva good time too. [B+]