Juan of the Dead

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 July, 2012, 12:00am


Juan of the Dead
Alexis Diaz de Villegas, Jorge Molina, Andrea Duro, Andros Perugorria
Director: Alejandro Brugues

When Raul Castro took over from older brother Fidel and made his first steps towards liberalising Cuba, he probably wouldn't have thought of advertising it with a zombie comedy. But that's exactly what Juan of the Dead has done, perhaps inadvertently.

Revolving around a slacker's reinvention of himself as a self-employed terminator of the undead, Alejandro Brugues' film is an astonishingly irreverent spectacle which pokes fun at the many problems he and his fellow Cubans faced under Comrade Fidel's rule. One running joke sees the characters shrugging off the zombie-infested streets of Havana as being pretty much the same as before.

A Cuban-Spanish co-production, Juan of the Dead is no clandestine, shot-on-the-run movie. And because the film had official approval, Brugues was able to film some of the action sequences in Havana's best-known places, including a massive zombie breakout at the Plaza de la Revolucion, the city square which has seen many a Fidel-led political rally over the years.

Imagine this scene as the undead gnarl and gnaw their way through human flesh in the Cuban equivalent of Tiananmen Square, and it'll be close. It's given additional hilarity in the way the chaos unfurls beneath the famous Che Guevara mural and the slogan proclaiming, 'Hasta la victoria, siempre' ('Until the everlasting victory, always').

Brugues' film is not just an attempt at guilty-pleasure entertainment. Rather, the director is at once paying homage to Cuban cinema from the past and playing with the horror genre's possibilities for social commentary.

When the jaded Juan (Alexis Diaz de Villegas) looks at the gloomy streetscapes below him through a telescope at the beginning of the film, he's aping the way the aloof, middle-class protagonist observes social changes in Memories of Underdevelopment, Tomas Gutierrez Alea's sharp satire on problems in socialist Cuba in 1968.

And as Juan and his friends start a small-time business hunting down zombies for a fee, it's as if Brugues is mocking the way private entrepreneurship is emerging in a country long run as a controlled economy. But never mind all those subtexts: while lacking state-of-the-art make-up and effects or a layered narrative, Juan of the Dead is a thrilling, no-holds-barred ride through death, disaster and moral ambivalence. Whether Fidel will approve is another matter.