Fantastic Fest ’11: Juan of the Dead – Review


Cuban film gives life to the zombie genre

Nobody would blame a horror fan for going into Juan of the Dead full of negative preconceived notions. The zombie genre is so oversaturated right now, so full of terrible attempts to churn out a cheaply shot tribute to the works of George Romero without adding anything new to the genre, that many horror fans have come to dread any new film that features the undead. Add to that the fact that Juan of the Dead is a zombie comedy with a similar sounding name to Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead and it would be completely understandable to dismiss Cuba’s first attempt at a zombie film as a cheap knockoff of other, better works. Easy to do but 100 percent wrong.

Juan of the Dead is a film that not only gives a new coat of paint to the zombie genre, it pimps it out with flames and a pair of fuzzy dice. Written and directed by Alejandro Brugués, Juan of the Dead, or Juan de los Muertos as it is known in its native Cuba, is a live-action Loony Tunes cartoon given a syringe shot of zombie action. Not afraid to play with the boundaries of reality or even take a break from the action to have a quiet scene that tugs at the heartstrings, the film blazes its own tone and attitude while still paying loving tribute to zombie films that have come before. It’s funny, smart and tender in all the right places. Juan of the Dead is the best zombie movie in a long, long time.

If Juan of the Dead is a Loony Tunes carton come to life, Alexis Díaz de Villegas is Bugs Bunny in a wife-beater. Perpetually nonplussed, Juan is a conman who has managed to get through the ups and downs of Cuban political upheaval thanks to his brain, his laziness and his ability to squeeze a coin out of any opportunity. When Cuba becomes overrun with zombies, Juan decides to stick it out in his homeland instead of hightailing it to Miami like so many of his countrymen. Along with a group of friends and family — including his lifelong friend and fellow troublemaker Lazaro (Jorge Molina), Juan actually manages to carve out a new business for himself in the zombie-overrun island. Juan de los Muertos is Juan’s zombie removal service. He and his friends — a group of misfits and miscreants — arm themselves with whatever is handy — be it a baseball bat or a machete  — and take care of their neighbor’s zombie problems, for a cost of course.

What sets Juan of the Dead apart from so many other zombie comedies is the genuineness of its characters. Because Brugués took so many moments of the movie from his own life and family, the characters ring completely true. They have chemistry and a timbre to their banter that helps to sell the story whenever the movie pushes the edges of reality and ducktails into the ridiculous — which it does a lot. Juan of the Dead is a comedy first, a zombie movie second. It is not afraid to skirt the edges of plausibility if it means a laugh for the audience and for that the audience is grateful.

Brugués has an imagination and artist’s eye that gives the film a freshness that most zombie movies are sorely lacking. This isn’t a rehashing of the same horror movie clichés that fans are force-fed time and time again. Juan of the Dead is something new and exciting and — most important — culturally significant. The film represents one of Cuba’s first — if not their first — foray into the horror genre. From the traditional Cuban music used to score the film to the political satire that runs through the film’s veins, Juan of the Dead is 100 percent a Cuban film and its heritage is what helps to give it its identity. Juan of the Dead will bring a horror fan back from the brink of zombie weariness and for that alone it is an essential watch.

Director: Alejandro Brugués
Notable Cast: Blanca Rosa Blanco, Elsa Camp and Alexis Díaz de Villegas
Writer: Alejandro Brugués

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