Providing a new twist to a sub-genre as stale and fetid as that of the zombie movie is no mean feat, so great credit is due to Argentinian director Alejandro Brugués for producing a second feature as funny, fresh and inventive as Juan of the Dead (Juan de los Muertos, 2011). After winning a number of plaudits on the international festival circuit, Brugués’ Cuban zom-com has found its final resting place on DVD, hoping to take a sizeable chunk out of the home entertainment market.
Juan of the Dead tells the blood-drenched tale of titular hero Juan (Alexis Díaz de Villegas), a Havana slacker who spots a gory business opportunity after Cuba is invaded by flesh-eating zombies. Teaming up with his rotund best friend Lazaro (Jorge Molina), Lazaro’s son Vladi (Andros Perugorría) and his own estranged daughter Camila (Andrea Duro), Juan begins offering the city’s besieged populace a timely clean-up service, killing undead relatives and loved ones for a handsome fee. As the increasing zombified horde gradually begins to turn the country into a gory circus of flying limbs and severed heads, Juan’s business begins to dry up, leaving him with two choices: fight or flight.
Brugués tows an extremely neat satirical line throughout his sophomore feature, providing some welcome depth in between scene’s of hyper-violent zombie mutilation. The shuffling undead are dismissed throughout by Cuban government officials as anarchic ‘US dissidents’, who want nothing more than to see the glorious island nation sink into the sea. However, the street-smart Juan is cynical from the outset, seeing through such propaganda but retaining Havana and its people close to his heart. Several times he states that both himself and his nation of birth have survived “Mariel, the war in Angola, the Special Period and what came later“, and can see no reason why a few shuffling corpses should be any more of an issue.
Taking influence from Edgar Wright’s rom-zom-com Shaun of the Dead (2004) but importantly never plagiarising, Juan of the Dead also exhibits a great deal of respect and love for the zombie genre as a whole. In an astute reference to more contemporary flesh-eater films, the undead of Juan can sometimes run, gaining themselves the label of ‘hare’ as opposed to the shambling ‘tortoises’. No explanation is put forward for this variance, and Brugués thankfully puts the scientific hokum on hold in order to focus on machete-sharp one-liners, some exhilarating set pieces and the engaging character dynamics.
Whilst the film’s relatively low production values may be an issue for some, zombie fans will find a great deal to love in Brugués’ rum-soaked comedy. Even those new to this most exhausted of sub genres may well come away from watching Juan of the Dead infected by its humour, charm and head-lopping abandon.
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