In Juan of the Dead, a zombie epidemic breaks out in Havana, but it takes a while for the locals to notice. At first, the living dead —stumbling about in raggedy clothes, looking dazed and hungry and unwell — blend right in with the rest of the citizens of post-revolution Cuba. “Looks the same as ever to me!” says a woman about the scene outside her window.
Gradually, though, layabouts Juan (Alexis Díaz de Villegas) and Lazaro (Jorge Molina) realize something strange is afoot — and there’s money to be made from it. As the social order on the island begins to crumble, the two slackers launch a thriving business, hiring themselves out to people who need to put their beloved ones out of their zombie misery. Instead of fleecing tourists, Juan and Lazaro are now milking the undead for cash. In Cuba, people just figure out a way to push on, even in the face of the apocalypse.
Juan of the Dead was written and directed by Alejandro Brugués (Personal Belongings), who obviously adores genre pictures — the title is an homage to Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead — and peppers his film with knowing winks to the movies of his youth (“Come with me if you want to live,” Juan tells a distraught woman). A radical departure from the cloistered, dialogue-driven dramas that have characterized Cuban cinema in the last 30 years, Juan of the Dead also feels big. Hordes of the undead run screaming down the Malecón; a helicopter plows into El Capitolio; when the heroes try to flee the island by raft, they discover the ocean floor is crowded with zombies walking — presumably toward Miami.
Shot on a budget of $3 million, Juan of the Dead has modest makeup and CGI effects. There is the requisite splatter — in one scene, a hundred zombies are decapitated with one swift stroke — but if you want elaborate gore, stick to The Walking Dead. Brugués wants to make you laugh rather than gross you out, and the film is dense with visual gags (a billboard proclaiming “Revolution or death!” collapses and takes out some monsters), symbolic jokes (Juan’s weapon of choice for bashing the undead: an oar) and bits of physical comedy, such as a funny sequence in which the heroes try to make a getaway by piling into a Russian-made Lada, the notoriously unreliable cars that are common on the island. In one subtle joke, the movie even dares to suggest that You-Know-Who may have succumbed to the zombie virus.
Much like George A. Romero did with his films, Brugués turns Juan of the Dead into a social and political commentary. The movie takes repeated swipes at Castro’s revolution — some of them surprisingly pointed — but it also celebrates the endurance and ingenuity of people who have somehow managed to survive on a crumbling island stranded in time and starved of resources. When Lazaro says “It’s impossible to live in this country!” he’s not just talking about the zombie epidemic. As a horror picture, Juan of the Dead is merely OK. But as a satirical comedy of life in Cuba under Castro, it totally kills – and keeps coming back for more.
Cast: Alexis Díaz de Villegas, Jorge Molina, Andros Perugorria, Andrea Duro.
Writer-director: Alejandro Brugués.
Producer: Laura Alvea. An Outsider Pictures release. Running time: 100 minutes. In Spanish with English subtitles. Vulgar language, violence, gore, nudity, sexual situations, adult themes. In Miami-Dade only at the Tower Theater.
Follow Herald Movie Critic Rene Rodriguez on Twitter at @ReneMiamiHerald.