(2011) dir. Alejandro Brugués
Starring: Alexis Díaz de Villegas,
Jorge Molina, Andrea Duro,
Andros Perugorría, Jazz Vilá
Eliecer Ramírez, Antonio Dechent
Zombies in Havana.
Zombies in Pittsburgh.
No way, José!
Superbly written and stylishly directed by Alejandro Brugués, Juan of the Dead is no tobacco leaf rip-off of UK's Shaun of the Dead. Given that Juan is set against the backdrop of a Totalitarian country ruled by a socialist dictator, the movie is clearly as high-concept and satirically sharp-edged as George A. Romero's classic Dawn of the Dead.
Romero's picture is scary as hell, funny, gory and intelligent. Brugués scores on three of those four - it's never really scary and only vaguely suspenseful. This, however, isn't a complaint. It scores even more points in the humour/satire department than its similarly named happy-go-lucky-blood-gusher from Blighty.
Almost from the beginning the laughs come fast and furious and never let up. Unlike the amusing, but overrated Shaun of the Dead, the humour in Juan veers from full blown black satire to a genuinely funny picture where many of the laughs are rooted in story and character.
This is what places the picture several notches above the rest.
Juan (Alexis Díaz de Villegas) and his best friend Lazaro (Jorge Molina) are a Cuban Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Rooted far closer to Miguel de Cervantes than most contemporary zombie pictures, this is a story of friendship, love, loyalty and family. Juan isn't deluded like Quixote, per se, but suffers from the typical 40-something malaise of mid-life crisis that afflicts men all over the world - all the more pungent since he's lived his whole life under Fidel Castro's yoke. He's always been poor and virtually unemployed. His semi-estranged daughter Camila (Andrea Duro - a criminally gorgeous mouth watering babe) lives primarily with her mother in Miami and has grudgingly come for a visit with the Dad she's never really known or accepted.
Zombies will change all this.
When the movie begins, Juan and Lazaro are lazily fishing under the bright Cuban sun. In no time, Lazaro catches a bite and reels in a hungry, water-logged and rotting zombie. Luckily, they're armed with a trusty harpoon gun.
Back on land, hell is about to break loose or as a great sage once said: "When there's no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the island of Cuba!"
Zombie attacks become more frequent. The government television broadcasts warn of insurgent activities overseen by the evil American empire. Juan, for the first time in his life, sees an opportunity to turn his life around and even gain the respect he so desperately craves from his daughter. He forms a ragtag group, trains them and before you can say, "CHE! CHE! CHE!" he's turned the crisis into a business opportunity - offering to dispatch the zombified loved ones of distraught families. Eventually, he receives a clarion call and his entrepreneurial pursuits turn to fighting zombies for a greater good.
Let's not forget that the film is set 50 years after the revolution. The glory days that never were are far from over. Havana and the country itself are still run by a strict state-controlled bureaucracy. Part of the pleasure here is the satire Brugués wends through a very humanist tale that, in turn, is magnificently sewn into an apocalyptic zombie picture.
I made a point after first seeing the movie to see it again. I simply could NOT get the picture out of my head. The second viewing was a revelation - it's not just good, it's terrific. The movie holds up superbly on a second viewing and while the shocks and surprises of the carnage-factor are slightly dampened, everything else about this intelligent, fun picture is heightened.
Try to see this movie without reading any reviews or puff pieces (except for mine, of course) - I've read a few myself since seeing the movie and was flabbergasted that even critics who wanted to NOT give away some of the surprises managed to do so in a way that prepared audiences for what they going to see by prefacing their noble attempts at spoiler-avoidance by strongly hinting at what they were trying to avoid in print.
The carnage that is wreaked from beginning to end is some of the most stunning, glorious, shocking and laugh-out-loud-funny zombie splatter ever rendered in any motion picture. The laughs outside of the purview of the gore are savage, nasty. juvenile, intelligent AND good-natured.
The makeup effects and overall production design (by art director
Derubín Jácome) are as first-rate as one would NOT expect from a film like this. As well, the mise-en-scene is genuinely so magnificent and cinematic that I suspect we're going to be seeing a lifetime of great work from director Alejandro Brugués. Working with cinematographer Carles Gusi, we're treated to numerous shots that are almost painterly in their virtuosity and the sense of geography during the carnage is worthy of masters like John Woo - particularly in his early HK phase.
Most importantly, the shooting and Mercedes Cantero's superlative cutting charge each action scene with dramatic beats and not the usual contemporary herky-jerky nonsense that makes no cinematic sense other than to bludgeon an audience. Here, we get bludgeoned in the way cinema is designed to bludgeon us - great shots (with tempered variation) and great cuts by filmmakers who are hard-wired with filmmaking artistry into their very DNA.
Frankly, this Cuban zombie-splatter-satire is so wonderful, I can't imagine Mikhail (I AM CUBA) Kalatozov making a better zombie movie!
"Juan of the Dead" is playing as part of the Toronto After Dark Film Festival (TADFF) Summer Edition. For ticket information, visit their website HERE."
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