Juan of the Dead [Juan de los Muertos] (2011)

Starring Alexis Díaz de Villegas, Jorge Molina, Andrea Duro, Andros Perugorría, Jazz Vilá, Eliecer Ramírez, Antonio Dechent

Directed by Alejandro Brugués

Expectations: Moderate. I love the gimmick title, so I hope it has the horror (and/or comedy) to back it up.

On the general scale:

On the B-movie scale:

I’ve tried to bring a range of films to this year’s Horrific October, so when I found out about this one, I did what I could to acquire it in time. Juan of the Dead, beyond its gimmicky title, is Cuba’s first horror film, and while it’s not anything revolutionary, it is a lot of fun. I have a lot of problems with it, but I enjoyed the film and honestly, in a zombie movie, that’s about all you need.

Juan of the Dead is something of an homage movie to the zombie genre, taking cues from a host of films and Tarantino-ing them into one film. Did you enjoy the part in Dead Alive when the priest says, “I kick ass for the Lord”? Well, then prepare to hear one of the survivors say exactly that in a dank parking garage. Similarly, other scenes reference Dawn of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead, 28 Days Later, [REC], etc. If you’re OK with this, and you just want to see the zombie apocalypse as scored by salsa music, then ignore everything else and just watch the movie. You might be disappointed, but I’m pretty sure you’ll be entertained.

So as an homage, the story is pretty much a known quantity. Somehow the dead have begun returning to life, and social order slowly deteriorates around Juan and his friends. There’s a lot of social commentary peppered throughout (ala the Romero zombie films) about how the zombies are merely dissidents sent by the United States to undermine Cuba. It’s skillfully done and really hits their point home about the government obscuring the truth and lying to the common people. There’s also some sub-plots around the strained relationships between Juan and his daughter (ala the strained girlfriend relationship in Shaun of the Dead), and Juan’s friend Lazaro and his son. None of it goes beyond simple conventions, but that’s OK in this type of film.

Gore-wise it’s pretty much all CG, all the time. Most of it is rather obvious and not all that exciting, but a few moments transcend their roots and become genuinely impressive. One of these moments is a decapitation scene that is so over the top and fantastic that I’ll probably never forget it. I don’t want to go into details, but if you watch the movie, you’ll definitely know it when you see it.

After starting out rather slowly (which is fine), it takes a turn about a half-hour in, where the dark humor ramps up significantly as Juan and his friends turn from passive to actively fighting the zombies. They don’t merely fight for survival, though, they fight opportunistically to make money killing zombie loved ones for survivors. This never really grows into anything other than a few good jokes, but again, that’s OK. The initial zombie fighting scene is probably my favorite in the film (after that decap scene) because in addition to simple zombie fighting, Juan also employs some martial arts. He whips out the ninja stars, nunchucks and even has a shot involving some awkwardly awesome wirework. It’s all used to exaggerate the humor, and it works perfectly. Just don’t expect it to continue throughout the film, as Juan quickly ditches the Asian weapons for something he’s more comfortable with: a long, wooden paddle.

Juan of the Dead doesn’t take the zombie film in any new directions (other than the Cuban location), but it is a fun zombie movie for genre fans. You could argue that our culture has oversaturated the market with a literal zombie horde of shitty zombie movies, but Juan of the Dead is one of the good ones. Some missteps are there, to be sure, but overall I had a lot of fun watching it.