To cap off a fantastic Milwaukee Day on Saturday, I returned to the UWM Latin American Film Series to see Juan de los Muertos. Yep. Juan of the Dead. I don’t know about you, but when I hear that a university’s Latin American Studies department is sponsoring a film festival, this is not what I think of, but I was pleasantly surprised when I saw this genre spoof of the zombie thriller on the roster.
Juan of the Dead follows in the vein other zombie comedies such as Shaun of the Dead, to which its title pays tribute (in addition to the original, Dawn of the Dead). In this Cuban iteration directed by Alejandro Brugués, we get a slight (very slight) bit of Cuban politics mixed in with the requisite gore-fest.
Juan of the Dead is the story of Juan and his friend Lázaro, two lazy forty-something Cubans with no aspirations, sometimes turning to petty crime to scrape a living. They spend most of their time lying on the roof of their apartment building, drinking in the sun. When zombies appear out of nowhere and begin to terrorize the citizens of Havana, the media claims that the brain-hungry attackers are in fact Cuban dissidents being paid by the American government. Juan quickly realizes the reality of the situation and just as quickly hatches a plan to take advantage of the situation to make some money. Together with a ragtag group of nogoodniks and his estranged daughter, He starts a business called “Juan de los Muertos” (“Juan of the Dead”), where for a fee he will kill your undead loved ones. Soon however, all of his customers seem to have been infected, and it becomes a fight to stay alive. Soon they are faced with a decision that Juan has been avoiding his whole life: whether or not to defect from Cuba and flee to the United States.
This film has all of the requisite elements of the genre: the makeshift weapons (in this case including a rowboat paddle, machetes, a harpoon gun and a slingshot), the spurting blood, dangling limbs, rolling heads, and other B-level special effects, the team member that is infected and must be mercifully killed, and the priest who possesses inside knowledge of how to kill the undead (although he is hilariously accidentally killed before his plan can be revealed). The characters (yes, I do think it’s important to have semi-decently compelling characters even in a zombie comedy) were hit and miss, ranging from vaguely relatable to ill-conceived walking punchline. Juan and Lázaro, the center of the story, as well as Juan’s daughter, are certainly the most successfully executed (guess who survives?). The acting is campily self-aware, as is the dialogue. Occasionally there will be a reference to Castro or the revolution, but it’s typically with a knowing smirk, as if to say, “No, we’re not really going to go there.” The mood is kept light throughout, and there’s a laugh line every couple minutes.
When going into a zombie comedy, you know what to expect, and Juan of the Dead delivers. With tongue firmly in cheek, the film refuses to take itself seriously. While the film is hardly groundbreaking, there are certainly fresh elements that set it apart from other examples of the genre. If you’re looking for a zombie movie with a uniquely Cuban twist, check out Juan of the Dead — I’m not sure how many others there are out there.