Juan of the Dead (Juan De Los Muertos)
Director/Screenplay – Alejandro Brugues, Producers – Inti Herrera & Gersavio Iglesias, Photography – Carles Gusi, Music – Julio de la Rosa, Visual Effects Supervisor – Juan Ventura Pecellin, Visual Effects – Alchemy Digital Effects (Supervisor – Manuel Rico), Atico 7, The Frank Barton Company (Supervisor – Sergio Garcia) & Intermedia Producciones, Special Effects Supervisor – Juan Carlos Sanchez, Makeup Effects – Christian Perez Jauregui, Art Direction – Derubin Jacome. Production Company – La Zanfona Producciones/Inti Herrera Producciones/TVE/Cara Sur Television/Canal +/Instituo Cubano del Arte e Industrias Cinematograficas
Alexis Diaz (Juan), Jorge Molina (Lazaro), Andrea Duro (Camila), Andros Perugorria (Vladi California), Jazz Vila (La China), Elicer Ramirez (El Primo), Antonio Dechent (Preacher Jones), Elsa Camp (Yiya), Blanca Rosa Bianco (Sara), Argelio Sosa (Rogelio), Susana Pous (Lucia), Sandy Marquetti (Gabriel)
In Havana, people everywhere are returning from the dead and devouring the flesh of the living. State television dismisses them as dissidents. After fending off several of the dead, Juan and his best friend Lazaro decide to take advantage of the opportunity and advertise their services to help people dispose of zombified loved ones. Joining them are several others, including Juan’s estranged daughter Camila. As the dead come to overrun the city, Juan and his friends barrage themselves on his rooftop and try to find a way to escape.
Juan of the Dead was a modest hit after its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Everywhere it played, it was promoted with the phrase “the first Cuban zombie movie” and this has become a unique talking point. If nothing else, it demonstrates the prevalence of George Romero’s zombie films and just how much the zombie film has travelled across cultures where it can even translate to one of the world’s few remaining Communist countries. Not only that, it also becomes, despite the culture divide, a zombie film that knows its genre with there being a rather amusing aside at one point where it is asked why some zombies are slow and shuffling and others are fast moving – a la Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead (2004) remake – whereupon Alexis Diaz gives a shrug “I was hoping someone would clarify that for me.”
Even though the Cuban film industry is a relative recent one (the film does receive Spanish co-financing, while director Alejandro Brugues hails from Argentina), Juan of the Dead emerges as just as polished a work as any among the horde of English-language zombie films. It features some accomplished digital and splatter effects. Moreover, it comes with a humorous take that makes it in essence a Latino Shaun of the Dead (2004). There is the particularly amusing premise where the hero and his friends take the opportunity of the zombie holocaust to hire themselves out as zombie hunters where Alexis Diaz takes to answering the phone “Juan of the Dead – we kill your loved ones.”
Director Alejandro Brugues has a sense of oddball humour that stands Juan of the Dead in great stead. One of these is the scene where Alexis Diaz attempts to subdue the zombified elderly husband (Argelio Sosa) of his neighbour (Elsa Camp) and best friend Jorge Molina comes and shoots the old man with a harpoon – only for the harpoon’s rope to pierce through him and shoot the old lady in the chest. This results in the quite surreal scene where they are fending off the struggling Sosa impaled on the rope, trying everything from stakes and crucifixes, while the old lady comes to life and starts climbing up the other end of the rope. Equally amusing is the gag at the end where Jorge Molina is dying of a zombie bite and confesses to Alexis Diaz that he loves him, a scene that comes with two rather funny shaggy dog punchlines.
There is also the amusing image where Alexis Diaz and companions are surrounded by zombie hordes and an American preacher (Antonio Dechent) arrives in a jeep, fires a harpoon that impales a zombie to a pole and then does a circle of the square, allowing the rope to decapitate hundreds of zombies – a witty alternate to the mass evisceration of zombies by helicopter blade that has turned up of recent in films like Planet Terror (2007) and 28 Weeks Later (2007). There are other striking images – like where Alexis Diaz and Jorge Molina are fleeing on a raft and the camera moves down under the water and shows hundreds of zombies looking up at the undersides of all the rafts, an image that seems undeniably modelled on the underwater zombies in Lucio Fulci’s Zombie – Flesh Eaters (1979); or the peculiarly eccentric image of Diaz fighting of masses of zombies singlehanded at the end as a reworking of My Way plays on the soundtrack. Alejandro Brugues doesn’t always get the tone of humour right – the scene where Alexis Diaz struggles with an infected Jazz Vila as the two are handcuffed together that turns into an impromptu salsa dance falls lamely – but mostly he does.
The Cuban setting allows for Romero’s zombies to be changed in some unique and creative ways. There is an amusing satirical undertow to the film – like when the zombie onslaught starts overrunning Havana, the populace’s immediate response is to start heading off to Miami in makeshift rafts. Or where the government keeps referring to the zombies as ‘dissidents’ or starts blaming US agitators for the crisis. That said, the film is less about criticising the Castro regime, more one that greets life under it with a cheerful shrug of downbeaten realism of making do with shortages and leading an impoverished life. The hero and his best friend are canny entrepreneurs and the film champions their free-spirited and opportunistic attitude. There would also seem to be a good number of jokes aimed at local Cuban audiences that I didn’t get.
Alejandro Brugues next went onto make the E is for Equilibrium segment of ABCs of Death 2 (2014).