In the first of 12 posts, film critic Neil Fulwood is going to fly us across the globe in search of the ultimate zombie movie.
Welcome to Cuba, home of Fidel Castro and quality cigars, birthplace of Gloria Estefan! Cuba, where everything is blamed on dissidents in the pay of corrupt Americanos. Indeed, middle-aged petty crook Juan (Alexis Diaz de Vilegas) and his laconic best bud Lazaro (Jorge Molina) are so taken in by the propaganda that it’s a while before they realise the undead are on the streets. The faded grandeur of Havana is a backdrop to scenes of decidedly non-partisan flesh-munching, and the droning voice of the government-approved newscaster says the same thing in response to every incident: “Dissidents.”
Juan of the Dead’s funniest joke is its refusal, despite the blatantly unambiguous iconography, to play the zombie card until very late in the proceedings. In fact the “z” word is only spoken once, by a foreigner, and falls on uncomprehending ears. The first time Juan and Lazaro come up against a zombie, they desperately try to fathom the problem as they fend it off. Vampirism? A clove of garlic shoved between its salivating jaws has no effect. Possession? They try an exorcism, but Cuba being a secular state, neither are au fait with the rudiments of prayer. Juan resorts to using the Lord’s name as a prefix and then swearing at the zombie for a bit.
Eventually, Juan and Lazaro simply accept the fact that the dead are returning to life. Juan notices that the families of the deceased aren’t too pleased at their return and – laughing in the face of the socialist ideal – embraces venture capitalism. Soon the pair are running their own business (“Juan of the dead, we kill your relatives, how can I help you?”), aided by a drag queen with a kick-ass attitude and a killer pair of heels, a muscleman who fights zombies blindfolded due to his squeamishness at the sight of blood, and Juan’s long-estranged teenage daughter who morphs from girl-next-door to Latin America’s version of Lara Croft.
The concept of zombie apocalypse as a way to generate some extra cash is the film’s second best joke. The genre has endlessly recycled a single scenario – mismatched group of survivors hole up in an intensely claustrophobic setting while their necrotic antagonists lay siege – so a variation where the heroes actually take it to the streets and meet the zombies head on is refreshing and engaging. Alejandro Brugúes’s riffs on his country’s recent history give Juan of the Dead an edge, but you don’t have to be a student of twentieth century politics to appreciate the satire.
It’s a clever and fast-paced film, often subverting what ought to be tense set-pieces (a fight between man and zombie who find themselves handcuffed together is choreographed like a tango) and trusting enough to the audience’s sense of humour to play up its über-low-budget aesthetic. The finale in particular is a triumph of B-movie imagination over budgetary reality. The closing frames, Juan turning his back on the possibility of escape to continue the fight, is simultaneously the grimmest joke on offer and an against-all-odds affirmation of Cuba’s revolutionary spirit.