Zombies have been a theme in horror movies since the 1930’s, from White Zombie through I Walked with a Zombie to Plan 9 From Outer Space, but it wasn’t until 1968 that George Romero made the subgenre relevant with Night of the Living Dead and its sequels, Dawn, Day and Land, using the mindless hordes to comment on racism, consumerism and modern war, pushing deeper than any other director had. In recent years, perhaps reflecting the overwhelming population pressure and demands from the media to conform, zombies have enjoyed a resurgence; The Walking Dead in comics and on television, the infected of [REC] and 28 Days Later, the forthcoming World War Z. So how does a director find something new to say? Simple. Say it in Spanish.
Written and directed by Alejandro Brugués, Juan de los Muertos takes cues more from Shaun of the Dead than the bitter satire of Romero, but manages to render the slapstick with honest emotion as Juan (Alexis Díaz de Villegas) and his best friend Lázaro (Jorge Molina) defend their block from the undead with the same resolve that has long held back capitalism from their “small Socialist island in the Caribbean.”
With the government offering little advice on how to deal with those labelled “dissidents,” it is up to Juan to experiment on how best to defeat them, and harpoons, stakes, garlic and exorcisms are all attempted before realising that destroying the brain – by any means – is the only effective method. Gathering a ragged band, including Juan’s estranged daughter Camila (Andrea Duro) and Lázaro’s son California (Andros Perugorría), they expand their services across Havana, for a fee.
This may be Cuba’s first horror movie, but it doesn’t feel primitive; the panic feels authentic, and the violence is both hilarious and inventive, zombie killing montages blending with a soundtrack that captures the flavour of Cuba. If the end of the world has to come, the apocalypse is certainly preferable with sunshine and rum.
Brugués is knowledgeable on his chosen subject and the broader history of horror, quoting dialogue from other films for his own purposes, and subverting the hallmarks of the zombie genre; no other film can boast a scene where zombie hunter and recently bitten victim, handcuffed together, segue into a dance number even as the victim transforms.
The film is unpolished and uneven, and there is a specific scene in an underground parking garage where the overdubbing is very poor, but the obvious enthusiasm of all involved carries it through these minor quibbles. As Juan comes to realise, even overrun with zombies, this island in the sun is a good place to be.
Juan de los Muertos is currently on limited release, and is on DVD 4th June