I feel like my recent horror reviews have been a world traveling effort. I’ve been to Spain, South Korea, Australia, Canada, and France already this year, but a visit to Cuba came somewhat as a surprise. Billed as “Cuba’s first horror film,” which I’m not sure I can realistically believe, Juan of the Dead at least marks the country’s first widely publicized foray into zombie territory. So how did director Alejandro Brugués fare with his entire country’s reputation riding on his back?
Considering Juan of the Dead was more creative and inventive than most horror films I’ve seen this year, I’d say Brugués did a splendid job establishing Cuba as an undead wasteland. Obviously drawing comparisons to one of my personal favorite horror comedies, Shaun of the Dead, based on title alone, Juan certainly gives the Brit a run for his money at times.
Assembling an eclectic cast of characters, each with a particularly vibrant personality, Brugués’ screenplay certainly exudes a life of its own. Quite honestly, Juan and his friends were the most enjoyable cast of characters I’ve had the pleasure of following in recent memory. The home-grown talent is surprisingly impressive and all the main parts are well acted, and throwing in comic relief like the hulking brute El Primo and the cross dressing La China only bolstered an already unique experience.
Extremely strong leading performances by heroes Juan (Alexis Díaz de Villegas) and Lazaro (Jorge Molina) shine brighter than the others though, being two best friends trying to optimize a terrible scenario. The banter and jokes thrown back and forth between the two knuckleheads were top-notch, but Molina stole every scene with his raunchy attitude. You could always count on the stocky Cuban to cut the tension and strike a hearty laugh. Villegas was an equally strong hero character for his group of friends, but without Lazaro, Juan’s reactions and dialogue wouldn’t have been nearly as entertaining.
With that said, I must digress. Juan of the Dead is set up to make you laugh and enjoy horror, but at times Brugués’ story is just too over the top – and yes, I’m about to say this, unbelievable. Now, I’m aware we’re discussing a film depicting the walking dead overtaking Cuba, but too often our characters are graced with “perfect moments.”
It’s the little clichés like watching Juan wander slowly down a zombie filled street, not drawing a single shambler’s attention, only to watch people be eaten alive all around him. Without giving away too much detail, these occurrences happen far too often and make the story seem all too scripted, abandoning the truly horrific elements going down around Juan. Hardcore horror lovers and realism dedicated cinema fans alike may have trouble staying involved with Juan’s travels, too hung up on reaches and exaggerated ideas.
But one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. I honestly didn’t expect how dark Juan of the Dead decided to color its humor. Throughout the film, death wasn’t treated as something sad or unfortunate, but instead just an inconvenient road bump along the way. One can feel a little desensitized laughing at such morbid humor, but Brugués embraces every second of horrific comedy, making every effort to prevent the horror and comedy from being two separate entities. Our director never releases the slapstick tone which is visibly prevalent, not even while the credits are rolling, which makes it hard to roll your eyes at scenes which would have been overkill based on any other delivery. While the story may have been lacking some bite, Juan’s infectious grooves and B-Movie tendencies were entirely too much fun to ignore.
Viewers are also treated to a bevy of fantastic zombie kills, opting to stray away at times from the typical guns and knives to offer some creative relief. From children’s toys to a random arsenal of outdated weaponry, Juan and his crew make minced meat of their zombie foes with a delightfully fresh vision. Not to give anything away, but a few of my favorite kills involved a specially souped up car, a baseball bat, and a natural predator. Brugués manages to create an out of this world entertainment level, distracting from the before mentioned shortcomings.
Juan of the Dead is nothing but good ol’ fashion horror fun, nothing more and nothing less. Alejandro Brugués’ zombie beater won’t haunt your nightmares or eat away at your psyche, instead, it provides side-splitting entertainment worth a watch amongst friends. Sure, some of the socialist humor and Cuban culture may be lost on American viewers, but if watching a goofy hero bludgeon zombies to death with a rowing oar sounds right up your alley, it’s worth the trip to Castro’s deadly island paradise.
Congratulations Cuba, you have your first midnight classic!