They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and while we don’t really know who they are exactly one thing is clear. They’re probably bilingual.
Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead certainly wasn’t the first horror comedy to spoof the zombie genre (it’s not even the best… Return of the Living Dead has that honor), but Wright’s film has a well earned cultural cache thanks to a smartly funny script, energetic direction, and a charismatic pair of lead actors. It’s definitely not a bad place to start when setting out to make your country’s first zombie film.
Especially when that country is Cuba.
Juan (Alexis Díaz de Villegas) is a lazy man. His lack of drive and ambition have cost him a marriage and distanced him from his grown daughter, but he still finds little desire to do more each day beyond drinking, fishing, and hanging out with his best friend Lazaro (Jorge Molina). He does make time to screw around with his neighbor’s wife though because, hey, a man’s gotta eat. The duo’s lethargic days are interrupted by something truly lifeless when zombies begin appearing throughout Havana. Chaos erupts in the streets, but while most people flee Juan and Lazaro see a unique business opportunity.
They set up shop offering to dispatch annoyingly zombified friends, neighbors, and family members for a nominal fee. The pair recruit an eclectic crew from the neighborhood including Juan’s estranged daughter, Lazaro’s laid back son, a slingshot-toting transvestite, and his/her hulking pimp who faints at the sight of blood. It’s an inspired act of capitalism for a communist country, and the gang is soon rolling in cash, blood and zombie parts. Sure Lazaro occasionally let’s his enthusiasm and desire lead to a few “accidental” kills of perfectly healthy (ie non-zombie) people, but he’s working on his issues. But what happens when the balance of supply and demand tilts in favor of the undead?
Writer/director Alejandro Brugués doesn’t shy away from the fact that his film has direct lineage to Wright’s popular cult classic, but he adds enough Cuban flair to make his own mark as well. And regardless of where the inspiration comes from the only really important question is does it work as a horror comedy?
And the answer is a resounding yes… and no.
First off, the movie is seriously funny. Juan is a real ladies man while Lazaro only wishes he was, and much of the humor is of the dirty and/or sexual variety. It’s crude but playful, and it works well with the film’s overall spirit. But while it earns chuckles from masturbation gags and riffs on the genre (including one priceless bit as they try to understand why some zombies shamble and others sprint) it also finds humor in the Cuban situation and the challenges the Cuban people have faced. That attitude is a big theme in the film and a major motivation for Juan and his friends.
He’s been a slacker by choice all of his life, and while the zombie onslaught brings him financial opportunity it and this time with his daughter also open his eyes to a purpose and world bigger than himself. That doesn’t mean he has any interest in running away though. His fellow Cubans have faced worse problems before and if anything it’s toughened them up and prepared them for whatever comes next. Even if that next thing is flesh-eating zombies.
What doesn’t work though is the very evident fact that Brugués’ ambition far exceeds his budget. The blood and splatter effects are mostly fine, but the larger scale set pieces involving explosions and fire are accomplished with digital work that would make the Syfy Channel laugh. The concern isn’t that viewers are knocked out of the film’s meticulously crafted world… it is about zombies after all, but you can’t help but see the terrible animation and wonder if the Birdemic guy was hired as effects supervisor.
Juan of the Dead probably won’t find and maintain the same cultural hold as Shaun of the Dead, but for the first film of its kind from a culturally strict country it’s a big step in the right direction. It definitely leans a lot further towards comedy than horror, but that’s not a problem when the comedy works like it does here. If you get the chance to see the film at a festival you should definitely make time for it. Not only is it a fun, raucous, and wildly inventive flick, but Brugués has yet to show it to the Cuban government for official approval. It’s a required step in the country, and there’s a good chance the film as it stands might not come out the other end of the process intact.
The Upside: Very funny with laughs both smart and crass (but mostly crass); sly commentary on the average Cuban citizen’s mentality; lead actor looks like a less neurotic John Turturro
The Downside: Incredibly cheap-looking special effects; may cross the line between Shaun of the Dead homage and ripoff; not all of the humor works including a dance number and more than one example of gay fear as a punchline