Title: Juan de los Muertos, a.k.a. Juan of the Dead (2011)
Directed: Alejandro Brugues
Cast: Alexis Díaz de Villegas, Jorge Molina, Andrea Duro, Andros Perugorria, Jazz Vila
A couple of years ago, a friend of mine made a trip to for scholastic reasons. She lived and went to school there; so she had the whole ‘Cuban Experience’. According to the stories she brought back from her trip, going to Cuba can be a cultural shock for anyone accustomed to the comforts that capitalism has to offer. But the best part of the whole ordeal was that she came back with these beautiful pictures of streets filled with cars from the 1950’s, huge cemeteries filled with these awesome looking tombstones and the city, which is made up of old buildings that looked like something straight out of a post apocalyptic film. The first thought that popped into my head? would make a great setting for a zombie flick! Well, low and behold a couple of months later I heard they were shooting ‘Juan de los Muertos’ there. I was excited to see the film because I’ve made two DIY zombie films myself Cannabis Cannibal (2008) and Cannabis Cannibal Exodus (2009), two very low budget ‘guerrilla style’ films that people have grown to love. So the prospect of making a full blown zombie movie (read: a film with a real budget) that takes place in the Caribbean is something that I’ve always wanted to do myself; but alas, director Alejandro Brugues went ahead and did it before me. The question remained in my mind: Would it have the necessary production values to be a good zombie flick? Could they pull off a zombie apocalypse convincingly and would it be a memorable film?
Juan de los Muertos tells the story of a pair of slackers, Juan and his best buddy Lazaro. They like living in because their life is a very laid back one, all they’ve chosen to worry about is fishing and stealing in order to survive. They get by through life looking for the next hustle, simply put, they are used to living in a constant struggle, but with little worries about being successful or achieving anything. Problem is that life has other plans for them, like making them face a zombie apocalypse head on! One day as Juan and Lazaro are fishing, they catch a zombie instead of a fish! Suddenly everyone in is turning into zombies! Juan being a survivor and an opportunist, dreams up a way of capitalizing on the whole thing: he will kill your zombified loved ones for you. Kind of like The Ghostbusters, but for zombies! How long will the business go on?
Chilling Out During The end of the World
So first things first, I loved this freaking movie! It has all the things you want and need in a zombie movie, like gore and cool looking zombies, but above all things what I loved most about Juan de los Muertos was how mordantly funny it was! And here’s what I love about seeing horror films from other parts of the world: they bring a fresh new element to a genre that’s otherwise worn. I mean, seriously, how many zombie movies have you seen where they simply go through the same types of conversations and situations? Juan de los Muertos offers this up: a fresh new take on the zombie genre. The simple fact that the film takes place entirely in and the way Cuban people act and talk is what made it such a refreshing watch for me. Unfortunately, maybe some of the humor will be lost on American audiences, because some of the jokes are very, very Cuban. The kind of jokes you’d only understand if you’ve lived there, or understand what is all about. But fear not, for the most part I think anyone can find humor on this one. The motley crew of zombie killers is really what makes it so funny. Take for example Juan, the protagonist of the film. He’s a slacker, he’s got a girlfriend he visits sometimes for sex, but she’s married! He’s not a very good father. His daughter hates him; she doesn’t even call him dad because he steals from her, his own daughter! His best friend sticks to Juan like glue and has no problems kicking the living daylights out of some dude that owes him money. Another member of the group is a transvestite who goes around stealing radios from cars because as she says “I have to survive somehow”. Another one kills zombies while smoking weed! So we got this really crazy group of individuals whom we follow through out the whole film, the cast made things livelier and funnier than they could have been.
Thematically speaking, the film touches upon many political issues, one of them being the never ending struggle between capitalism vs. socialism. Which is the best? Which has proven to be most successful in the world? I like the fact that the film does not idealize the way socialism has treated . There is an idealized form of socialism, one in which we are all equal, and then there’s the form of socialism currently existent in Cuba, where everyone except the government is the same: the people are extremely poor while the government gets the best of everything. To me that’s just another form of dictatorship, and of course living in a country like that must be a real struggle. I’ve never personally been to , but I have family members and friends who have traveled there, and the stories they bring back are of really good, kind people living in the middle of chaotic socio-political situation. Politics reigns supreme over peoples lives, and big brother is most certainly watching you. It’s the kind of town were freedom of speech is none existent and speaking against the government will get you into serious amounts of trouble. People have to really hustle to get by, which is exactly the kind of character Juan is. Many Cubans are tired of living on that constant struggle and for many, leaving the island is the solution to all their problems, which is a theme reflected on Juan de los Muertos. Consequently, my own film Cannabis Cannibal Exodus speaks of the same theme; it’s why it’s called EXODUS, which refers to leaving. It’s the idea that things are so messed up in your country, that you have no choice but to leave it all behind and search for new horizons elsewhere. I also thought it was interesting how the film isn’t one sided with these themes, while some want to leave and see that as the solution to their problems, others will want to stay in Cuba and try and improve it, change it. So the film isn’t’ preachy or one sided, its pretty even handed with the political themes it touches upon.
And how is Juan de los Muertos as a zombie flick? Well, I have to say I was extremely pleased with it, in fact is surpassed my expectations. While at first it is obviously similar to Shaun of the Dead (2004) in certain scenes, specifically when the humans see zombies on the streets and to them it’s the same as seeing regular people on the streets everyday, I’d say that’s about as close as it gets in terms of similarities with that film. Juan of the Dead is its own creature. It has more then one memorable zombie sequence, but one really blew me away. The good guys kill hundreds of zombies in one swoop, not gonna spoil it but that scene was ultra cool. The film pays its respects to the king of zombie movies, George Romero, by having an zombie killer introduced into the story who looks exactly like George Romero, right down to the huge glasses and the wide eyed look. One scene blew me away, where we literally see thousands of zombies walking beneath the ocean…I mean, the zombie gags on this movie just kept coming and coming.
Technically, the film looks beautiful. I think this is one of the films greatest strengths. It was very well shot. Same as with the Brazilian zombie flick Porto Dos Mortos (2010), which to me was that much more special simply because we get to see these awesome vistas of Brazil, the fact that Juan de los Muertos was shot entirely in Cuba offers us some beautiful vistas of Cuba, a city in decay. is a really beautiful island with many beautiful places in which one could shoot a film, but this film focused mostly on the urban landscape of rather then the mountains and the more nature oriented vistas that the island has to offer; which in the other hand is what sets it apart. is made up of crumbling buildings which the government doesn’t care to fix up. A building might be literally falling apart on people, and no one will do anything to fix it! On the other hand government buildings are impressive looking and the director took advantage of these as well. So we got a good looking movie shot in some very unique locations. All this adds up to a very unique and incredibly funny zombie flick that I highly recommend. I think the only downside to the film is that sometimes, the visual effects aren’t all that great, but these occurrences are few. Juan de los Muertros is special in many ways, but chief amongst them is the fact that this is the first Cuban zombie film! Check it out if you want to see something different and if you want to laugh, I doubt you’ll be disappointed.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Directed by: Alejandro Brugués
Produced by: Gervasio Iglesias, Inti Herrera
Written by: Alejandro Brugués
Cinematography by: Carles Gusi
Music by: Sergio Valdés
Starring: Alexis Díaz de Villegas, Jorge Molina, Andrea Duro, Andros Perugorría, Jazz Vilá, Eliecer Ramírez, Antonio Dechent, Blanca Rosa Blanco
I first heard about this movie through a Facebook ad. As you may already know, Shaun of the Dead is one of my favorite movies, and, so, naturally, I have it listed as such on my Facebook page. Released in the US under the same studio, Focus Features, I was naturally notified in my feed of what can essentially be considered that film’s Cuban cousin, Juan of the Dead. Intrigued at the prospect of what could’ve possibly been an international effort to portray the same outbreak, but wary of the film’s potential to just essentially be a remake, I naturally put the film in my movie queue. My expectations weren’t too high for this film, nor was I expecting utter crap. Luckily, the movie wasn’t. And it makes smart usage of the zombie-infested setting to say some poignant things about life as a family in Cuba. (However, it’s unfortunately not the beginning of some international project to depict a global outbreak. Darn.)
Juan and his best friend, Lázaro, are much like their English counterparts, Shaun and Ed — slackers in every sense of the word, and not really worried about doing too much to change that situation. Both have adult children, Camila and Vladi, respectively, but while Vladi takes after his father and lazes about — when he’s not running around with any number of women — Camila wants nothing to do with hers. Before he can win her back, however, strange things start happening, as random attacks on Cuba’s citizens begin to increase exponentially in number, causing a nation-wide panic the likes of which haven’t been seen since… well, pretty much any time in the past century.
The film features a funny mix of patriotic pride and political critique. It’s very clear that the filmmakers love their country and care for the citizens that reside within the troubled country’s borders, but when it comes to the unexplained zombie outbreak, the government is quick to politicize the attacks in their favor, blaming them on America-sympathizing dissidents. While the audience obviously knows what’s going on, the characters in the film believe the lies their government feeds them, and they vow to protect themselves at all costs — more specifically, at the cost of any survivors left, as the three opportunists join up with La China and El Primo, their gay friends, and, eventually, Camila in an operation they all Juan de los Muertos — a zombie extermination squad whose enthusiastic mantra is “We kill your loved ones.”
This is a good enough premise as it is, and once the film gets to this point, it has a lot of fun with the concept, allowing for the cast to exterminate the living dead in creative and flashy ways, each with their own fighting techniques. These action sequences are satisfyingly scattered about the film, with excellent special effects on display, as well. The film takes a turn, however, as business begins to dwindle as more and more clients become the work. It isn’t long before Juan and the group begin to think of following his wife and leaving Cuba for good.
Juan of the Dead isn’t nearly as funny as Shaun of the Dead, and its protagonists are harder to love, as well. There’s a mean-spirited humor that runs throughout the film, as Juan and Lázaro are quick to dispatch with both zombies and even their still-living enemies with equal prejudice, and one somewhat uncomfortable scene that’s played for ghoulish laughs even involves their accidental killing of one of Juan’s neighbors, a fact that they barely even acknowledge. It’s still a pretty funny film that even translates well into English subtitles, but just keep in mind that this is possibly going to be a hard sell if you’re looking for your heroes to be of the altruistic nature.
As stated previously, however, all of this seems to be stating some sort of point about their shamelessness being a necessary evil to live in the conditions that they’re in. The film is critical of the government, but through Juan and Lázaro, it’s also quick to point out the responsibilities and importance of the citizens, too. The question of whether to abandon their corrupt but proud home country for better opportunities in a foreign land is surprisingly poignant in what is an otherwise humorous gore-fest, and it brings a welcome allegorical purpose behind the outbreak at hand while never beating it into your head like so many blunt objects.
And, in case you were worried about characterization within your zombie comedies, there’s also a bit of sweetness to the core characters’ relationships, as well. They’re nowhere near as endearing as those in Shaun, and you get to see far more of their bodies than you would likely wish to see, but it’s clear that these characters have deep preexisting relationships that informs their current actions and their dedication to each other — especially Juan and Lázaro, who would apparently do just about anything for one another.
Overall, I’m fairly happy that a random Facebook ad introduced this film to me. It’s not often that you find interesting new takes on the zombie sub-genre, let alone genuinely funny ones, but Juan of the Dead succeeds at being an entertaining experience with surprisingly high production values that also manages to be an intelligent film at the same time. With a few pacing and tone issues, it’s not going to supplant Shaun of the Dead any time soon, and probably not even Zombieland, for that matter, but definitely track it down if you haven’t seen it already, as I’m sure it’ll be an annual favorite for more than a few comedy-horror fans.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 3.5 / 5
Categories: ReviewsTags: action, Alejandro Brugués, Alexis Díaz de Villegas, Andrea Duro, Andros Perugorría, Antonio Dechent, Blanca Rosa Blanco, Carles Gusi, comedy, Cuba, Eliecer Ramírez, Facebook, foreign film, Gervasio Iglesias, Halloween, horror, immigration, Inti Herrera, Jazz Vilá, Jorge Molina, oppression, outbreak, revolution, scary, Scary Movie Month, Sergio Valdés, Socialism, Spain, Spanish, zombie, zombies