“Juan of the Dead” is a silly and occasionally creepy zombie movie, but one that also dares to have a brain and display some very volatile commentary about the state of Cuba, and the inherent poverty that runs rampant. Though Juan lives in poverty and is mostly considered a loser by most in his neighborhood, he’s managed to carve out a comfortable existence for himself, and is something of a saving grace for neighbors. After Juan and his friend Lazaro come across a rotted corpse while fishing that attempts to bite them, they kill it and then decide never to talk about it again. What’s funny is that most of the situations may seem like a warning sign to most, but director Brugués comments on the state of Cuba through it.
Sure, to us it’s unusual, but to Juan and his friends, Cuba is so broken down and chaotic, it’s just another day. In fact most of the characters don’t really catch on to the fact that there is a rising zombie apocalypse until the very middle of the film. From the beginning, Juan and his band of friends spend their time trying to figure out why the city is even worse than ever, and then try their best to live among the conditions. Even when the zombies are gnawing on human beings, Juan and his friends retreat to the roof tops to drink rum and figure out their next plan of action. The zombies this time are called “dissidents,” branded by Juan and his group for their eagerness to cause havoc, completely unaware of what the monsters are. There’s a hilarious confrontation with a zombie between Juan, his inept friend Lazaro and an elderly couple that will inspire laughter, and a very close call involving Juan’s efforts to save his daughter in a mansion.
Director Brugués is never afraid to go large scale either, staging a really funny riot sequence where Cuban locals are encouraged to storm downtown and fight the “dissidents” only for them to flee in droves. Juan and his friends take the only natural course, and begin looking for a way to bank off of the apocalypse by inventing their own service. It’s tough to murder a loved one, even an undead one, so Juan and his friends grab weapons and begin banking off of extermination, even as their city crumbles all around them. While “Juan of the Dead” may not be the most original zombie feature, it’s worth watching for the spirited performances and the very empathetic cast of oddball characters.
Whether it’s the buff brawler in the group who can only fight zombies blindfolded thanks to his aversion to the sight of blood, or the transgendered China who is deadly with a slingshot, you root for these heroes, and you want to see them live. Juan himself is a noble and very resourceful hero, who barely survives many skirmishes with “dissidents” thanks to dumb luck and his ability to think on his toes. Alexis Díaz de Villegas gives the best performance in the film, providing a very complex and heartfelt turn as a man who realizes that his city of Cuba needs saving, in spite of being overrun by the walking dead. “Juan of the Dead” admittedly goes on much too long with a finale that feels mostly padded for time, but it still manages to make its mark as a unique and bold zombie film, in the end. I especially loved the montage in the closing credits that really lend an admirable patriotic spirit, and complexity to the story that’s subtle but intelligent.