Director Alejando Brugues had a specific vision for his Cuba-based zombie flick Juan of the Dead, one that culls together over fifty years of Cuban history into a tight little story about pride in one’s own country and the increasing tensions with the United States. Using zombies as a metaphor for both the internal and external struggle Cubans deal with on a daily basis, Brugues manages to construct a fun yet flawed little zombie flick, one that pays homage to zombie films we all know and love.
Living in the slums of Cuba, Juan and Lazaro are small time crooks spending their days fishing, drinking, and hanging out on the rooftop of their apartment building. Despite his comfortable, albeit simple, life, Juan longs to reconnect with his daughter, who seeks to move to Miami to be with her mother and leave behind her squalid life in Havana. But now Juan and Lazaro have a bigger problem: zombies have taken to the streets and are running amok. Not one to let a money-making opportunity slip by, Juan and Lazaro establish themselves as the city’s only zombie dispatchers, charging a hefty fee to dispose of the living dead in the homes of Cuba’s denizens.
Juan of the Dead is incredibly straightforward in its approach, though it manages to toss in enough humor and subtext to make it stand out as something moderately unique. Zombies are referred to at various points as revolutionaries and dissidents, and several times a talking head on the television make explicit references to the possibility that the zombie invasion is American made. It’s pretty heavy handed at times, though this does little to detract from much of the humor.
Sadly, some of the humor gets lost in translation. Words appear on the screen before they’re spoken, often ruining a joke that rests squarely on the timing of its delivery; other times the humor just doesn’t come across in text well enough for non-Spanish speakers, prompting nothing more than a slight chuckle as opposed to gut-busting laughter. When it does work, much of the humor comes from its strong characters. Alexis Diaz de Villegas and Jorge Molina play off each others distinct personalities perfectly; one is serious and determined, the other aimless and accident-prone (though the accidents don’t always befall him). This of course calls to mind the relationship between Shaun and Ed from the similarly titled Shaun of the Dead, and I don’t think it would be much of a stretch to call Juan and Lazaro spiritual successors to the two.
The characters, however, are also incredibly despicable people. Their role as small time thieves to sustain themselves in the slums of Cuba notwithstanding, they seem to have no problem accidentally murdering people and simply not caring. Lazaro’s inability to accurately work a small crossbow provides much of the deadpan humor in the film, but it also allows their true character to shine. It’s kill or be killed during the zombie uprising in Cuba, even when the enemy in your sights isn’t one.
Given its low budget, the CGI comes across has blatantly obvious and very hokey, though the frenetic human vs. zombie brawls are entertaining enough to distract you from it. Weapons of choice are nunchucks, an old wooden boat oar (reminiscent of Shaun of the Dead, despite what the director claimed), a baseball and bat, and the aforementioned crossbow. The deaths are fun, inventive and downright hilarious at times.
Juan of the Dead is a fun little zombie film, yet one with enough flaws to be heavily divisive. Not everyone will love it – maybe it’s not subtle enough, or maybe the CGI just doesn’t do it for you, but in a landscape where everyone and their mother are making zombie films, Juan of the Dead definitely stands out as a unique little take on an often overplayed sub-genre.