Directed by Alejandro Brugués
Featuring Alexis Díaz de Villegas, Jorge Molina
Director Alejandro Brugués' new zombie film has the unique distinction of being the first zombie film to come out of Cuba.
This kind of tag can be both a blessing and curse because it can come across as a stunt, but in reality the film is solid no matter where it would have been made. Juan of the Dead quietly made its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2011 and has made a few festival screenings around the globe since then but never made much a buzz. I recently got the chance though to check it out at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival's Summer Screenings program and was blown away by this little known zombie gem.
Being from Cuba, it has its own flavor and it is a postcard and a satire of modern life in Havana. Alexis Díaz de Villegas plays Juan, the film's laid-back hero of the film. We see his world go upside down when all of Cuba is overrun with zombies. Juan uses this as a business opportunity: kill people's newly undead family members for a fee. Naturally the Cuban authorities blame the U.S. conspirators for the zombie invasion, but as the country falls apart Juan and his gang are left to their own devices to survive. The population gets reduced more and more and Juan and his gang of misfits (including his daughter) try and find a way to get off the island to Miami.
There are a few things quite remarkable about this film. The first is how big the film is. Just about every major landmark is shown in Havana either being overrun with zombies or being completely destroyed. This was done with a quite a bit of digital special effects but they actually shot on actual Cuban landmarks. The second remarkable thing is how much Juan of the Dead satirical bite on Cuban society but was still actually financed by the Cuban government itself! The film isn't overtly critical but it makes it pretty clear of the pretty sorry financial state the country has become with the 50-year-long American embargo and how silly the authorities are trying to pacify the public with false information when there is crisis going on.
This is director Alejandro Brugués (Personal Belongings) second film but he has quite a filmography of as screenwriter and the script is rock solid. There is a whole sequences where a less secure filmmaker would cut off to keep the action going. This scene in particular that takes place on rooftop between Juan and his crazy friend Lazaro (Jorge Molina) would have been completely cut by a major studio but this turns out to be the funniest moment of the film. In fact, the character of Lazaro is the successful "secret weapon" of this film. Rarely do you see a main character both so vulgar and violent, but also so lovable.
I tend to ask myself with these types of film, "What? Another zombie movie?" whenever I see anything with …of the Dead in the title these days but the best zombie movies are never actually about the zombies. All the best ones that have come out and stood the test of time have been a satire on society in some way and Juan of the Dead succeeds perfectly in this way. The film riffs on quite a few zombie films but in terms of story, style, and tone is certainly kin to Shaun of the Dead. It has the same comic overtones, right down to the story arc of the main character, and his being a slacker. Where the film goes in a decidedly very different direction (and makes even more shocking that they got away with right under the Cuban government's noses) is that the outdated socialist system that nobody even believes in anymore is what impedes their survival. This doesn't mean the film is really political. Its played for laughs and it equally makes fun of and embraces the Cuba of the 21st century. Nothing is left unscathed in its satire; everything from the media blaming the U.S. for the zombie invasion to the bad Russian cars they are stuck using are because of the trade embargo.
The film is finally making its way in the U.S. to DVD and VOD on August 11th. I suggest you check it out because its one of the few things from Cuba you can legally buy in the United States.