Thursday, 14 March 2013

Juan of the Dead (Juan de los Muertos)

Juan of the Dead (Juan de los Muertos)

The zombie apocalypse finally hits Cuba in this so-so horror comedy, billed as the island republic’s first commercial horror movie. 

40-something slacker, smalltime crook and local lothario Juan (Alexis Díaz de Villegas) is getting by with minimal effort, surviving on petty crime and fishing in a Havana where everyone’s on the make.  Lazy and content, all Juan wants to do is hang out with best bud Lazaro (Jorge Molina), shag his married neighbour and re-establish a relationship with his feisty, estranged, teenage daughter Camila (Andrea Duro) before she leaves Cuba for good and a new life in Miami.

But all is not well in the worker’s paradise.  A zombie epidemic is sweeping the nation, blamed of course on Western imperialism by the TV, and, while it takes our heroes a while to notice the plague of the undead (after all, everyone seems to dress in rags and shuffle around looking dazed and hungry; the zombies fit right in), the ever-resourceful Juan sees an opportunity to turn a buck and reconnect with Camila.  Armed to the teeth, Juan, Lazaro and their gang (Lazaro’s hunky son Vladi, drag queen China, squeamish man-mountain Primo) hire themselves out as freelance zombie killers while Cuban society descends into chaos.

It had to happen eventually.  For decades, every new zombie movie took its cues from George A. Romero and his oeuvre.  Slow-moving, slow-witted, relentless gut-munchers, a bucket or two of gore and, in the best of them, a satirical political subtext.  Then along came 2004’s Shaun Of The Dead, a reverent parody of the zombie movie which both celebrated and poked fun at the zombie movie while recycling all the best jokes and making them palatable to a mainstream audience.  And now we have Juan Of The Dead, a reverent parody of a reverent parody, which inspires déjà vu rather than terror.  It’s biggest problem however, as with most horror comedies is that it’s neither funny enough to be a comedy or scary enough to be a horror movie.

While there’s a lot of gags about the zombie outbreak being the work of terrorist dissidents in the employ of the West (though the first zombie they encounter floating off the coast is wearing an orange Guantanomo Bay jumpsuit, so maybe it is all the fault of those Western imperialists…), they’re all rather obvious, one scene even featuring a horde of the ravenous undead walking across the seabed, no doubt heading, sheep-like, for the bright lights of Miami.  It all feels a little cynical though as Juan Of The Dead looks like nothing so much as a Hollywood calling card.  A talented director who’s worked wonders with a tiny budget (and a lot of favours), there’s a good chance that after this, Brugués, like his zombies, may soon be US-bound.  Like Shaun Of The Dead, Juan Of The Dead is referential to the point of looking like a crib sheet of zombie movie highlights (the throwaway nod to Fulci’s infamous zombie-on-shark action is particularly pleasing) with some geeky dialogue (the heroes echo the horror genre’s legion of fanboys when they pause to discuss the differences between slow and fast zombies) and some tasteful gore.

Fundamentally, however Juan and his gang just aren’t that sympathetic.  They’re callous, selfish opportunists who blunder through the film looking to turn an easy buck, as content filching off their neighbours to rid them of zombies as they are fleecing tourists. In one ‘hilarious’ scene, they tip an elderly disabled man from his wheelchair, leaving him to be eaten alive by a horde of zombies, in order to steal his chair and use it to ferry beer they’ve stolen.  It’s a throwaway gag but indicative of a seam of cynicism that runs through the film.  There’s also unpleasant streaks of rampant homophobia and misogyny.

While there are some nice ideas, Juan’s evasive tango with the ravenous zombie he’s found himself handcuffed to is a standout, the script lacks focus and momentum, the film’s reliance on slapstick, stereotypes and the continual repetition of the same joke (it’s all the fault of those imperialist dissidents!) wearing pretty thin.  Ultimately, Juan Of The Dead proves rather aimless; a pointless rehash of better movies, devoid of originality.  It just lacks bite.

David Watson

Written and Directed by:
Alexis Díaz de Villegas, Jorge Molina, Andrea Duro, Andros Perugorria, Jazz Vila, Eliecer Ramirez
1 hour 32 minutes
UK Cinema Release Date:
Friday 4th May 2012

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