SEPTEMBER 26, 2011
A few months back, the otherwise awesome Umberto from Latino Review inadvertently held me “hostage” by hinting that he had a major scoop coming up that horror writers should pay attention to. And since Brad “Mr Disgusting” Miska was at the doctor’s or something, he asked me to keep an eye out so we could post the news (because, you know, god forbid we post something 20 minutes later than it could have been posted). So I sat and sat and eventually was late for work waiting for this scoop, until Brad finally got home and was able to take over. Finally, a couple hours later, we learned that it was merely the trailer for Juan Of The Dead (Spanish: Juan de los Muertos), which was basically just another damn zom-com but with the added bonus of being the first Cuban horror film in over 50 years. Needless to say, it wasn’t exactly worth being late for work for, and I got up early* today to make sure that I saw it so I could yell at Umberto if the movie also sucked.
Luckily it was actually pretty charming, and is actually one of the better zombie films I’ve seen in a while (best since Zombieland, I think?). It runs a bit long, and a middle section where Juan finds a way to profit from the growing zombie problem is almost obnoxiously repetitive, but Juan is a unique hero that I enjoyed following through this experience, and even though I know little about Cuba’s political/social problems, it was easy to see and appreciate the film’s underlying social commentary of Cubans trying to hold on to the place they call home as things beyond their control constantly threaten to destroy it. Of course, this is best exemplified by the film’s final scene, which spins a very typical zombie movie ending (where a beloved character is doomed due to a bite during the big action finale) into something much more original and crowd-pleasing.
The fun thing about Juan is that he’s not a very noble hero. When we meet him he’s banging a neighbor’s wife, telling a kid that his dad is a sodomite, and can’t be bothered to stop his best friend from pleasuring himself while he peeps at a couple making love through a window across the way. But nothing depicts this aspect of his character better than the first big zombie scene, as he and his equally shady pals sit and listen to a neighborhood watch group discuss a recent string of stolen car stereos (one of them is to blame). Suddenly, a single zombie attack results in pretty much the entire group being decimated/turned, but rather than help, Juan just points out that now they won’t be too concerned about the stolen stereos, and shrugs off the carnage as he heads back home. Thus, he’s not an unlikable asshole – he’s a guy who’d rather not get involved, which is a lot easier to identify with (and like).
And while the movie has a good deal of zombie action, including a terrific fight between Juan and his buddy vs a giant swarm of the undead (with a terrific payoff – they started the brawl on purpose), it’s the on-target humor and strong character work that keeps it above the scores of Shaun wannabes that have peppered video shelves for the past 5 years. I’m not sure if I believe the director when he says that Shaun wasn’t an influence (there’s even a zombie dispatched by a random pipe sticking out from the ground in a backyard, and a “heart to heart” scene between Juan and his burly, less heroic best friend ends in a juvenile gag), but this isn’t a slacker comedy with zombies – Juan is a guy who has been in a couple of wars and does what he needs to do to survive. At one point he realizes he can make a few bucks by killing zombies that are former “loved ones” of paying customers (who can’t bear to do it themselves), and again, it could have been cut down some, but it’s still a far cry from Shaun, whose best idea was to simply go to the bar.
Also there’s no romance. Juan’s buddy Lazaro is constantly seeking a quick lay, but Juan’s primary goal is to protect not a love interest but his daughter, who is about 20 and estranged from him (she doesn’t even call him “Dad”). Of course they will re-bond over the events of the film, but the traditional arc of their relationship doesn’t make it any less interesting, and gives Juan a real way to redeem himself by being there for the daughter he never really knew at a crucial time. And his way of dealing with her possible attraction to one of his hoodlum buddies provides the best laugh in the entire film, I think.
Speaking of the laughs, it’s kind of obnoxious how many of them were sort of ruined by the subtitles. For whatever reason, the company that did them put multiple parts of a dialogue exchange on screen at once, killing the timing on jokes where the pause in between the two lines is what made the joke work. Since its human nature to read the entire subtitle section as soon as it appears, you get the punchline long before it’s actually said on screen. Basically it just causes a strange disconnect, and I hope it’s corrected for the film’s regular release.
As for the zombie action, it’s nothing special. There are some inspired gags (crossbow!) and a wonderful massacre near the end, but the makeup is pretty bland and there are very few gore/prosthetic effects of note – I assume this is a drawback of the fact that there apparently hasn’t been a Cuban horror film made since such things became part of zombie movie tradition. Actually, if the “50 year” absence is correct, then that would mean the last horror film made in Cuba was before Night of the Living Dead – i.e. the birth of what we know as a zombie film. So I guess I can forgive them for the lack of any eye-popping gore, but it should still be noted for those who watch zombie movies specifically for such things (instead of “boring” stuff like characters and theme). Less easy to forgive is the continuing gag of buildings collapsing – how the hell does that occur as the result of a zombie outbreak? Do buildings require living occupants to remain structurally sound? Or do these particular zombies feast on human flesh as well as foundation?
With some trimming (the aforementioned “heart to heart” scene should have been cut entirely) and maybe one more big setpiece, I think this could be a bona fide classic. I’m also unsure if Alejandro Brugues should have informed us who he wanted to play the English speaking priest that shows up near the end of the movie – I’ll never be able to watch this actor’s performance again without wondering how much more awesome it would be (swipe to read if you want: George Romero). But it’s a damn solid effort from a novice (this is only his second film) who has never made a horror movie before, and a charming way to watch the deaths of hundreds. And hopefully Cuba will produce a few more horror films – I’m always happy to see underused locales in my horror movies!
What say you?
*As I described in one of the other posts, having a pass to the festival doesn't mean you get into the screenings - you have to reserve individual tickets on the day it shows as well.