In early 2012, Juan of the Dead’s UK premier was held at my local art house cinema during their annual Spanish Language Film Festival. I was really annoyed that I couldn’t make the screening as I’d heard a lot of good things about the comedy-horror, the fist Cuban film I’d ever come across. Over a year later, LoveFilm sent me the DVD and I excitedly slid it into my player. Ninety-six minutes later I was a disappointed man. While Juan of the Dead has a lot of things going for it, I didn’t enjoy the broad comedy or unremarkable effects. It does however contain important political subtext which was much more to my liking.
Juan (Alexis Díaz de Villegas) is a middle aged Cuban, used to doing nothing on a regular basis. His wife left him some time ago, taking his daughter with her to Spain. Juan’s friend Lazaro (Jorge Molina) is in a similar situation but at least has his son Vladi (Andros Perugorría) for company. A strange illness begins to infect the people of the Caribbean island and those infected begin marauding through the streets, eating their friends and neighbours who in turn become infected themselves. Dismissed as dissidents, backed by America by the Cuban Government, it soon becomes apparent to Juan that no matter who or what they are, he and his friends have a battle for survival on their hands.
The political subtext behind Juan of the Dead is its strongest facet. The decision of whether to leave Cuba for the US, who is behind the outbreak and how the Government react to it are all very well written and the movie confidently says a lot without saying much at all. Ideas about these extraordinary events being just another one of those things for Cubans get to the heart of the day to day living that people of that island have endured for over half a century. There is strong opinion both in favour and against the regime and heavy satire about how it controls the media and thoughts of the people. The loss of Cuba’s youth to the US and other nations is also something that is explored and whenever the film became political, I was on board with it.
The problem with the movie is that there is another seventy minutes of running, jumping and zombie slashing which didn’t do anything for me. Because the film is obviously constrained by budget, it can’t show much zombie action but in attempting to, it further highlights the financial constraint. The effects and make-up aren’t great and the CGI rarely impresses. I don’t want to be down on the film because of these things but I always revert to Gareth Edwards’ Monsters when talking about small budget films and poor effects. The effects for that film were done on a shoestring budget and in the director’s bedroom so it is possible to create high end effects on a small budget.
Plot wise, the film was also found lacking. There is far too much running about and chopping zombie’s bits off without much purpose or direction. Eventually the group hit on the idea of forming a company which specialises in killing loved ones. This is a nice idea but is only really explored through a quick montage. The real gem in the plot is whether or not to leave, something which again is politically motivated. There is a subplot involving Juan’s relationship with his daughter Camila (Andrea Duro) but that almost feels like something bolted on in a late draft. It adds bulk to the script but not much heft. Andrea Duro is beautiful to look at and she is one of the better actors but her role feels like a poor attempt to add a female character. As I’ve already mentioned, I wasn’t a fan of the comedy either. It was very broad and crass with little intelligence behind it. The physical comedy has all been done before but the more satirical stuff was better handled. Watching a fat man masturbate on a rooftop doesn’t hit my funny bone but a brief speech about leaving Cuba for somewhere that hasn’t heard of Cuba or Castro or Communism was much more to my taste. The set up for jokes also seem to take an age. It’s simply not snappy enough.
The acting is average on the whole. Alexis Díaz de Villegas is the stand out as Juan, a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. He portrays the political dilemmas well and has a dry comic timing which is well judged. Andrea Duro is also good, as is Andros Perugorría. Jorge Molina overplays it for me and a couple of others are stifled by poor characters. Jazz Vila is really annoying as cross-dressing effeminate China but I enjoyed his boyfriend El Primo (Eliecer Ramírez), a giant who fights with a bandanna over his eyes because he faints at the sight of blood.
In the end, Juan of the Dead is a decent attempt at a comedy-horror but it misses the mark. There’s probably an excellent short film in there but I wasn’t enamoured by the broad comedy and slow, meandering plot. As a political satire though it is right on the mark and I’d recommend it on that strength alone.