DIRECTOR Alejandro Brugués WRITER Alejandro Brugués STARS Alexis Díaz de Villegas; Jorge Molina; Andros Perugorría DVD 4 June
REVIEW Chris Costa
It’s been 44 years since Romero’s seminal classic Night of the Living Dead was unleashed upon the world. It spawned a number of successful and arguably better sequels — the first two that is; let’s not mention the rest — homages and outright rip-offs the world over, some of which liberally borrow the ‘…of the Dead’ title so synonymous with the Romero legacy.
So I was intrigued to see Cuban zom-com, Juan of the Dead, a film not afraid to homage the homages, in this case equally winking at the successful British effort, Shaun of the Dead. And, not unlike Romero’s films, this one comes with a particular political and social slant.
After the opening titles inform us that it’s 50 years since the revolution has ended, we meet the titular Juan (Alexis Díaz de Villegas) and his buddy Lazaro, two 40-year-odd screw-ups trying to make a buck with petty crime. After accidentally hooking a zombie during a lazy day’s fishing, they head to the mainland in the midst of an outbreak, the news reporting the zombies as dissidents put there by the US government. Hooking up with Juan’s estranged daughter, Lazaro’s son and a couple of shady business partners — a camp, mini-short-wearing slingshot wizard and his timorous bodyguard, a muscleman who is scared of blood (a weak gag drawn out for far too long) — the enterprising duo latch onto a business venture: Juan of the Dead, in which they offer to despatch people’s zombified loved ones. But it’s not long before survival takes precedence over business.
It is nice to see the film stretch its limited budget. The zombie make-up is pretty good for the most part, although a few bloody kill scenes affirm the budgetary restrictions, as do some ambitious CGI shots of helicopters crashing and collapsing buildings. That said, there’s the occasional gem of a shot, one of the most successful being an underwater zombie scene recalling a memorable moment in Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2. But Juan is an awkward film at times. While the regime-baiting humour is hammered home at regular opportunity (at one point a bus crashes into a Revolution or Death poster), it all too often falls flat. Juan himself throws out sweary one-liners with abandon, yet fails to make much of a captivating leading man. As for his entourage, self-centred and amoral, they’re a difficult bunch to root for, not least the somewhat sociopathic Lazaro.
Zombie fans will enjoy the numerous genre references (at one point the characters ponder over the difference between slow and fast zombies (“I was hoping somebody would clarify that for me,” Juan deadpans), but many will see the same old tired and perfunctory plot devices, the socialist context doing little to salvage it, while hints of political emancipation leave one wondering how exactly the filmmakers were able to get it past the Cuban censors. It’s a brave film, but if only it lived up to the rather excellent Walking Dead style animated end credits, which essentially serve more as a reminder of what could have been.