Director Alejandro Brugués (Personal Belongings) dreamed about making a horror comedy with zombies. Surely at this point most of you are saying, "Oh who cares!?" and we'll be the first to admit that the market for zombies, even ironic funny zombies has reached the saturation point and is dripping all over the carpet. That being said, Juan of the Dead does offer things that no other zombie film has of late.
The most notable is its setting, Cuba. The island remains an exotic place to American minds, but not necessarily a romantic one. Ingrained as most are from birth to see it is a haven for an inferior system of government and under the most enduring trade embargos in modern history, there is nonetheless a fascination about the place. Like all great zombie film directors, Brugués uses his setting itself to speak on the subject of the land.
"I wanted to talk about a part of the Cuban society that just accepts life as it comes to them, without doing anything," said Brugués via email. "A part that doesn't let things change. Also, I wanted to talk about how Cubans react in front of problems."
Central to the story is the title character of Juan (Alexis Diaz De Villegas). In the past he served as a soldier in Angola, but now he has resigned himself to a near-pointless existence subsistence fishing with his best friend Lazaro (Jorge Molina). The two are shiftless, partake in illegal activities to get by, but do manage the occasional good deed for a neighbor. Juan's estranged daughter Camilla (Andrea Duro) arrives in Havana, but makes it clear to her father the city is just a pit stop until she moves on to America and leaves him behind forever.
Then one day the dead rise, and Havana is consumed by zombies despite government propaganda that assures the Cuban people everything is merely the work of American-backed dissidents. While some die, and others flee, Juan, Lazaro, and a small band of locals decide to gouge citizens for everything they have by starting an extermination service. "Juan of the Dead," says Juan as he answers the phone. "We kill your loved ones."
As the situation becomes worse and worse, the money rolls in, but under the eye of Camilla Juan begins more and more to question the way his life has turned out. Heroism comes unnaturally to him, though even he is unable to ignore the consequences of selfishness around him.
"Juan isn't born a hero, life forces him to become one," said Brugués.
Don't think that Juan of the Dead is only a dreary look at society. The comedy side of the horror comedy genre is well represented. Lazaro especially is responsible for many belly laughs, though it's generally of a particularly gruesome sort. He kills no fewer than three innocent people through complete ineptness when it comes to firearm safety, and his callous, almost benevolently psychopathic nature is the source of a great deal of hilarity.
Not every joke is a hit. The hulking El Primo (Eliecer Ramirez) is a physical juggernaut, but faints at the sight of blood. He rectifies this by fighting with a blindfold on as his friend, the transvestite China (Jazz Vila), shouts instructions to him while taking out ghouls with a deadly slingshot. Initially funny, the fainting gag gets old quick and the end result is unfortunately predictable.
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The best moment of comedy comes from Juan and China, who end up handcuffed to each other after a failed round up by the Cuban military. Unknown to everyone, China was bitten in the attack, and zombifies while still attached to Juan. The two struggle at first, but the fight quickly turns into a spirited, if macabre tango complete with soundtrack.
"The actors came up with that," said Brugués. "I had written the fight, but there was something missing, and one day as we were working I believe it was Jazz Vila who suggested the dance. I loved it. Then it turned out none of them knew how to dance!"
Juan of the Dead is funny without a single moment of levity. Its humor is of an endlessly black variety, and reflects the struggles of Cuba itself. Brugués has filled the land with zombies, cowards, and thugs, but he as also allowed it to earn itself heroes and people who will stand up to own the country. The message that we are left with is that of the necessity of both taking control of your own life, and of recognizing your responsibility to your people. It's a mixture of communism and capitalism where hopefully freedom and security can coexist long enough to crush the skulls of those who would eat our flesh with a boat paddle.
Juan of the Dead shows as 10 p.m., Friday April 6 through Thursday April 12, at the Alamo Drafthouse West Oaks, 2700 Highway 6 S. For information call 281-492-6900 or visit visit www.drafthouse.com.