Fantastic Fest Review: Juan of the Dead

Juan and his friend Lazaro are not what you would call upstanding citizens. Residents of one of Cuba’s worst slums, the duo make a living engaging in various criminal activities such as stealing stereos and robbing tourists. But these two small-time crooks aren’t the biggest problem facing this neighborhood anymore. A series of random, violent attacks involving the recently deceased become a daily occurrence. Instead of fleeing the country or hiding underground, Juan and Lazaro, discovering that they have a knack for eliminating the undead, launch a lucrative small business venture designed around removing the walking corpses of their neighbors’ loved ones so they don’t have to. Juan begins to second-guess his decision to stay however as he reconnects with his estranged daughter and desires a future for her that does not involve flesh-eating hordes.

Cuba is not a country known for their zombie cinema; or, point of fact, genre films in general. It may have something to do with the climate of censorship over the last fifty years, but we’ve hardly heard a peep from the island. Juan of the Dead comes roaring out of the gate and makes Cuba’s first entry into Fantastic Fest one of the best of the festival. Director Alejandro Brugues talked about making the film specifically for the audiences of this festival and using his illicitly procured Internet service—it is still illegal to have the Internet in Cuba—to research all requisite zombie cinema which he then spent years tracking down and watching. His extensive homework definitely paid off.

Juan of the Dead is certainly going to elicit comparison to Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, and not simply due to its familiar-sounding name. Much like Shuan of the Dead, the charm of Juan of the Dead lives and breathes with its comedic characters and the unconventional way in which they deal with the zombie apocalypse. The repartee between Juan and Lazaro is genuine, well timed, and tremendously effective. Despite Juan’s less-than-virtuous lifestyle, actor Alexis Diaz de Villegas brings a swagger and an easy amiability to the role that keeps us on his side. His struggle to mend his relationship with his daughter is also surprisingly touching and adds a measure of concrete humanity to some of the more absurd proceedings. He also proves to be one hell of a zombie-killer, which provides the comedic script with plenty of crowd-pleasing action.

Brugues wears his horror film adoration on his bloodstained sleeve. Juan of the Dead is loaded to the gills with references to the best-of-the-best of zombie cinema. Everything from Dead Alive to Fulci’s Zombie comes shambling into frame at one point or another. But Brugues also engages in some gentle ribbing of his own beloved genre that elevates his expertise; the scene wherein no one can explain why some zombies run and other don’t is a deliciously satirical jab at 28 Days Later. There is also a decided amount of influence from Ghostbusters as well; our heroes creating entrepreneurial opportunities out of supernatural plights.

But despite being beholden to the classics, Juan of the Dead very much establishes its own voice. It is a zombie film with a cultural identity. Throughout the film, Brugues takes calculated shots at Cuba’s propaganda machine. The government-controlled media keeps referring to the zombies as “dissidents” and claims the catastrophic events are actually an attack from the United States. The film also uses the theme of revolution, or the failure of revolution, to add a hilariously inaccurate spin on the undead uprising. My favorite bit however was the scene in which Juan finds himself handcuffed to a friend who is on the verge of becoming of a zombie. Once his amigo fully transforms, Juan has to find creative ways to maneuver the two of them to prevent getting bitten. The scene is scored with salsa music and choreographed as a dance number. It is uproariously funny and a unique nod to Cuban culture.

The unfortunate thing about Juan of the Dead is that its budgetary limitations necessitate the use of underwhelming special effects. The CGI is certainly rough around the edges and leaves plenty to be desired. But honestly the sincere passion evident in the script, the outstanding performances, and the sharp-as-a-tack comedy more than compensate for the shaky special effects. It is also easy to forgive a few moments of shoddy CGI in light the ambitiousness the film’s action sequences. They don’t just light a few cars on fire and scatter trash on the street to emphasize the dire nature of Cuba’s outbreak. Instead they crash helicopters into the capitol and level whole city blocks. The film also features one of the most enormous zombie crowd scenes ever to be caught on film.

Action-packed, riotously funny, and cleverly constructed, Juan of the Dead fits the festival to a “t,” or I guess I should say “z.” It is a cinch that we will be seeing Alexis Diaz de Villegas’ work featured here again.