Fast zombies, slow zombies, Nazi zombies, pet zombies, zombie sheep, zombies from space – truly new ideas for undead movies, you might think, are in short supply But while the mechanics of the zombie movie are now familiar to all but the most casual moviegoer – “You’ve got to shoot ’em in the head”, and so forth – it’s when the genre’s used as pure satire that it retains its power to amuse and mesmerise.
Writer and director Alejandro Brugués’ Juan Of The Dead doesn’t bring anything radically new to the walking dead genre, but in locating the basic template to Havana, Cuba, it immediately finds ways of surprising and shocking its audience. This isn’t to say that Juan is at all scary, however; like Shaun Of The Dead, it’s too playful and packed with in-jokes and references to shock, and its low budget (roughtly $3 million) means its gore effects are cheesily grim rather than stomach-churning.
As it turns out, Juan’s poverty-row effects and guerilla-style filmmaking style count entirely in its favour; like its central characters, there’s a rough-and-ready feel to Brugués’ movie that is difficult to dislike.
The titular Juan (Alexis Díaz de Villegas) is one such character. Forty-something, directionless and dishevelled, he spends his waking hours foraging for junk to sell, with the help of his equally bone-idle friend, Lazaro (Jorge Molina). But when Cuba’s suddenly invaded by zombies, Juan and Lazaro spot a potentially golden moneymaking opportunity; armed with a few makeshift weapons, they set up a company called Juan Of The Dead (motto: “We kill your relatives”) who can dispose of unwanted zombies in exchange for a small fee.
That such a venture would be utterly useless in the face of a zombie apocalypse is all part of Juan Of The Dead’s humour, which makes numerous, unsubtle jokes about Cuban post-revolution life. The undead aren’t even thought of or described as zombies – the media at first refers to them as dissidents, stirred into anarchy by a mischievous American government. When the outbreak begins, there’s a running joke that nothing much has changed in urban Havana; a woman wanders out of her tenement building, looks at the people shuffling aimlessly about in the street and tuts, “It all looks the same to me.”
It’s the mixture of apathy and greed among Juan’s cast that makes for such an interesting movie; like George Romero’s zombie movies, it’s satire, this time about self-interest and social malaise. Some characters barely even differentiate between the undead and the living in certain scenes; Lazaro displays an almost psychotic affection for his weapons of choice, a harpoon and twin machetes, and all three are deployed at the most inopportune times. Juan is about a group of people so used to surviving in arduous circumstances, a zombie invasion is merely another inconvenience.
This isn’t to say that Juan Of The Dead’s characters are entirely dislikeable, though; deep down, Juan’s just another ordinary guy trying to patch things up with his estranged daughter, and there’s a hint, here and there, that he may have been a far more heroic figure in his youth – there’s a brief mention of his military service in Angola, and a brush with famine in Cuba’s Special Period in the 90s.
The film’s footing in Cuba’s cultural history provides a unique atmosphere, and Brugués’ use of Havana locations (including a memorable scene in Revolution Square) provide real texture and colour. Much of the effects work – both CG and practical – never comes close to evoking a sense of realism, but there’s a brief, captivating underwater sequence which harks back to Lucio Fulci’s classic Zombie Flesheaters, and some crowd shots which give an impressive sense of scale.
Juan Of The Dead’s held back somewhat by its lack of drama, predictable storyline and occasional moments of puerile humour that threaten to tip over into outright homophobia. In spite of this, Brugués’ film is commendably ambitious, and really comes to life in some scenes – including one moment of mass decapitation which zombie movie buffs will surely adore.