We don’t see a lot of horror flicks out of Cuba, so please do dismiss the somewhat obvious title Juan of the Dead as a simple marketing hook, and instead focus on the good: a zombie comedy from a nation that isn’t particularly known for such things, one that’s bolstered by a strong sense of energy, an admirable commitment to silliness, and (at least by the end) a small semblance of character, warmth, and national pride. At the very least, Juan of the Dead stands as a clear indication that the allure of broad, gory, zombie cinema runs rampant all over the globe.
A country can only enjoy so many zombie flicks before they want to do one of their own, after all, and after seeing dozens of examples from every corner of the globe, it’s cool to add Cuba to the list of the cinematic undead. And while the title, the premise, and perhaps a few of the characters are clearly inspired by Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, not to mention George Romero’s classic zombie series, there’s certainly enough novelty, if not exactly originality, to be found in writer/director Alejandro Brugues’ likable lark of a horror farce.
The story begins as you’d expect: Havana has become overrun by the ravenous undead. Only two pals seem to notice it early enough, and are therefore able to save a few neighbors, discover how the zombies tick, and hole up on a roof with a few friends and family members. Juan (Alexis Diaz de Villegas) and his dopey pal Lazaro (Jorge Molina) are intent on staying put in their (relatively) beloved city, and to that end they cook up a “zombie extermination” business. This allows for some amusing moments, but eventually their clientele dries up (obviously), and that’s when our two heroes -- along with their kids, a tough-talking cross-dresser, and a massive muscle-man who faints at the sight of blood -- decide that their island nation is too far gone to salvage.
Villegas carries the movie with no problem at all; his Juan is a typical movie-style misfit, but the actor brings a fun physicality and amiable presence that helps keep the movie centered even at its silliest moments. Molina gets most of the “nastier” laughs, and the supporting cast (particularly Andrea Duro and Andres Perugorria as a pair of young lovers) does fine work when they’re not chopping zombies up in maniacal fashion. It’s tough to be an expert on “Cuban genre cinema,” but the low-budget Juan of the Dead clearly had some people working in the quality control department: the make-up is pretty solid, the gore is plentiful, the cinematography is strong, and the editing (mostly) quite crisp.
Clearly there are socio-political messages and political statements tucked away into this Cuban horror farce, some of them not very subtle at all, but to its credit, Juan of the Dead is more interested in joining the international parade of undead silliness than it is in being too overtly political. So while it’s definitely noteworthy that Juan of the Dead hails from Cuba, what’s even more important is that the flick is just good, silly, violent, and very gory fun. The two leads have an amusing chemistry from the opening scene; the zombie effects range from passable to surprisingly cool, and while the movie does slow down in between its cleverest sequences, there’s still enough wit and more than enough splatter to keep the horror fans happy.
More comedy than horror, Juan of the Dead is a slight and silly affair on the screen, but if it stands as the first in a new wave of Cuban genre fare, then I’d call it an important little movie all the same. I hope their next horror import is a bit more serious (aka scary), but that seems like an unfair complaint. As a very broad and exceedingly splattery mash-up of horror, comedy, and mild social commentary, Juan of the Dead is just good, goofball fun.