Juan of the Dead (Juan de los Muertos) is the story of Juan (Alexis Díaz de Villegas), a loveable slacker who spends all his time lounging around Havana, fishing, drinking and womanising. This is all brought to an unwelcome halt when the dead begin to rise, hungry for human flesh, leaving Juan and his friends fighting for survival… and money.
It’s all fairly familiar zombie-fare, but with a satirical edge that elevates it above many of its counterparts. Writer/Director Alejandro Brugués recognises the zombie film’s potential for meaningful argument, and as with George A. Romero’s original zombie movies, there’s political meat beneath the actual meat. Except while Romero’s trilogy was a critique of American society, Juan of the Dead is a critique of Cuban society. It chooses its targets wisely, and is scathing when it needs to be, in that irreverent, cynical way that only zombie films can get away with. It attacks socialism, with public transport still running smoothly while all around society is crumbling. It attacks capitalism, as our anti-heroes use the zombie apocalypse to make a quick buck. It attacks America, who, of course, try to invade. It even attacks bloggers, or “those people writing stupid things on the internet.” Those idiots…
This satire is never heavy-handed, and the film is a solidly entertaining comedy throughout, relishing in its gory slapstick, with some zombie-kills to rival the best in the genre. It’s nicely written too, and the characters are as funny as they are likeable. They’re oddballs who never stray into irritating territory, in whom we’re fully invested by the time we get to the moving ending.
The film plays with generic convention in a refreshing way, as Juan and his friends start a business, whereby they kill the zombified relatives of other survivors for money; “Juan of the dead, we kill your loved ones.” It’s an interesting subversion of the familiar, emotional scenes in zombie films in which our hero has to kill someone they love, as well as a clever dig at capitalism. There’s even a reference to the slow versus fast zombie debate, which ought to please genre fans.
On the scale of zom coms, Juan of the Dead falls somewhere above Zombieland but below Shaun of the Dead, which remains the high-water mark; Juan’s wooden paddle is unlikely to rival Shaun’s cricket bat as weapon of choice when the dead do eventually rise, and the Cuban film owes a lot to its British forerunner. Juan of the Dead is rough around the edges, particularly with some of the less impressive special effects, but that all really just adds to its charm, which comes mainly from the strength of the characters. This is combined with its biting (often literally) satire, rooted in Cuban anti-imperialism and a critical look at revolution. Following Romero, Brugués uses the zombie device to explore the struggle of the most vulnerable in society, and it works. Plus there’s a funky latin soundtrack, and lots of spattery zombie fun!
Overall, Juan of the Dead is a welcome addition to the genre that it clearly loves and understands; the politics and the comedy go hand in zombie-hand, and while it’s no Shaun of the Dead, it’s more than just a clever title.