Is there any meat still to be found on the rotting bones of the mythical ‘zombie apocalypse’ which purveyors of horror have been warning us of since the dawn of cinema? According to the new Cuban gut-muncher Juan of the Dead (Juan de los Muertos, 2011), there just might be Written and directed with striking sparseness by Argentinian filmmaker Alejandro Brugués and starring Alexis Dias de Villegas, Jorge Molina and Andrea Duro, this latest flesh-eater outing is a striking, gory take on one of horror’s favourite sub-genres.
The Cuban capital city of Havana has been over-run with zombies. Though the state media has tried to pass off the initially isolated incidents involving ravenous reanimated corpses as being perpetrated by dissidents supported by the American government, it is obvious to those still uninfected that there is something deeper at the root of the problem. One such person is Juan (Dias de Villegas) who, with his best pal Lázaro (Molina) and what’s left of their respective families, forms a vigilante group ‘Juan of the Dead’, killing zombies for a pre-agreed fee. As the months pass and it becomes obvious that they are fighting a losing battle against the increasing horde, the gang must take decisions that will effect their future forever.
Firstly, it’s probably best to ignore the fact that Juan of the Dead’s tenuous premise is, in places, hard to follow. Littered with frequent allusions to Cuba’s political and social history as motivating factors behind the zombie infestation, the viewer is left feeling that the film’s satirical references will likely mean more to Cuban natives than to the larger international audience. If instead you approach the film as a dryly humorous take on the zombie genre, immersing yourself in its 95-minutes of no-holds-barred, comic book violence, you’ll likely come away feeling slightly nauseous yet with a smile on your face, which is the effect all good horror movies should have on the viewer.
The best things about Juan of the Dead are its rich aesthetic style and the unique predicaments our hapless heroes constantly find themselves in, yet at the last moment somehow managing to escape. The visually arresting bleached browns of Havana form a perfect backdrop for the liberal dousing of blood and severed limbs, whilst the plethora of set-piece deaths appear fresh in their originality.
Brugués’ undead slaughterfest Juan of the Dead is best approached much like life itself – by forgetting the politics and simply enjoying the ride.