When was the last time a movie felt dangerous? As in you watched it and wondered how the filmmaker got away with it, how he or she didn't get immediately arrested. Usually that sense comes from watching transgressive material, like A Serbian Film, where it's basic decency that is being flaunted. But Juan of the Dead feels dangerous in a wholly political way, as if writer and director Alejandro Brugués is courting Castro's courts by daring to raise his voice against Cuba's regime... in the guise of a zombie movie.
The title and basic set up - two buddies must deal with the sudden zombie apocalypse - might make you think this is a rip off of Shaun of the Dead, with the pints at the Winchester replaced by glasses of rum. But Juan of the Dead, while it echoes or riffs on Edgar Wright's film a couple of times, is very much its own beast. It's certainly more in the vein of George Romero's explicitly political zombie films.
What made me fall in love with Juan of the Dead is the film's ineffable sense of Cubanity. This is a Cuban film, through and through, with characters who reflect the real experience of being Cuban. While a zombie apocalypse would fuck up anybody's day, Cubans have a history of troubled times that make them more apt to deal with the problem. An American might freak out and seek shelter, Juan of the Dead says, but a Cuban is likely to figure out first how to survive and second how to profit.
And that's the plan of the titular Juan; it's hard killing off your zombified loved ones, so he'll do it for you - for a price. Juan is no slacker; he's served in Angola and he has lived through uprisings and the 'Special Period,' when Cuba fell into chaos. He's not quite a criminal overlord, but he's a man who is deeply involved in extra-legal operations and who sees himself as a protector of his apartment block. His best friend is Lazaro, hairy and dim but likably so. This is Cuba, though, so Lazaro is no harmless Ed - early on we see him chasing down someone who owes him money, and when he finally catches the guy the resulting confrontation is short and final.
As the zombie infestation overwhelms the island, Juan and Lazaro team up with China, a transvestite prostitute and El Primo, her musclebound boyfriend who is so troubled by the sight of blood he wears a blindfold on zombie killing missions. Along for the ride is Lazaro's son California, a long haired, perpetually stoned handsome kid who engages in petty larceny. And then Juan's beautiful daughter, Camilla, the only good thing he has ever accomplished in his life, ends up with the ragtag band.
As a zombie movie Juan of the Dead is okay. It has one great mass zombie kill, and a couple of other fun kills, but it's not redefining the genre. As a character comedy Juan of the Dead is amazing; the highest compliment I can give is that I would love to watch a movie about these characters without a single zombie in it. Alexis Diaz De Villegas is great as Juan, lanky and cool, using his big eyes and rubbery face for great comedic reactions. Juan is no slacker; he’s a survivor, and De Villegas plays him with a knowing edge; under the seemingly lazy, shiftless exterior is an entrepreneur, a man who can take advantage of any situation.
Juan’s relationship with Lazaro (Jorge Molina) is sweetly sketched. These two are old buddies, and the actors have the chemistry of men who have known each other for a long time - there’s affection, but there’s also an undercurrent of exasperation. Lazaro has beady little eyes, which sometimes are used for hilarious blankness but other times for a dangerous violence; Brugués has Lazaro do things that no character in an American (or English) zombie comedy could get away with.
What’s fascinating about this cast of characters is the sense that Brugués is presenting the streets of Cuba as he knows them; there’s a scruffy reality to all of these people. That’s what makes Juan of the Dead amazing to me, that there’s this slightly playful, slightly satirical look at fringe dwellers in an oppressive regime. There’s some fun being poked at these people, but it’s mostly a celebration of their uniqueness in the face of a monolithic totalitarian regime - ie, the zombies.
China’s an especially interesting character; there’s a small bit of gay panic humor featuring her towards the end, but mostly she’s accepted as part of the group. And she’s actually one of the stronger members, especially deadly with a slingshot. Jazz Villa brings a strong dignity to the character while also getting great laughs with her.
There are ballsy political messages all throughout the film; some are subtle - a police van crashes into a roadside sign with a revolutionary message, Che Guevara’s head looms large in the background during a massacre - and some are not - California saying he wants to travel the world until he finds a country where no one has heard of Castro and then settle down there. In the film the zombies are called dissidents, and the government claims they’re Yankee agitators, but in reality they’re the unthinking, subjugated masses. Brugués doesn’t play this up too strongly - never strongly enough to feel like he’s preaching - but it’s a truly intriguing twist on the political nature of zombie movies.
The best political statement comes at the end, though. And Juan of the Dead may have the best ending of any zombie movie ever (this includes the animated bits that run through the closing credits). It’s rare that the end of a zombie film makes you want to cheer, and Brugués’ final message is inspiring and exciting and... well, revolutionary. It complete’s Juan’s arc in the most emotionally satisfying way possible. And, like the rest of the movie, it feels very, very brave.
Classic zombie movies aren’t about the walking dead and blood and guts, they’re about what the walking dead represent, and about how the characters deal with that. Juan of the Dead is one of those zombie movies.