Juan of the Dead (2011)

Rating: B-

Dir: Alejandro Brugues
Star: Alexis Díaz de Villegas, Jorge Molina, Andrea Duro, Andros Perugorría

In some ways, there’s precious little here that’s new. The basic premise is largely lifted from Shaun of the Dead: a mid-life slacker and his dumb mate have to deal with an unexpected zombie horde, while also handling a relationship crisis. Throw in elements from Braindead, some of Romero’s socio-political commentary and the usual tropes of the genre e.g. the person who gets bitten and slowly turns into a zed, and on one level, what you have here is little more than a derivative mish-mash. However, the setting is Cuba, specifically, Havana, one of the last bastion of state-sponsored communism left operating.

In this world, everything bad that happens – even the rising of recently-deceased corpses – is the fault of the evil imperialist empire, just on the other side of the Florida Straits.  But our hero, Juan (Díaz de Villegas) makes the most out of the situation, opening a business which will kill pesky zombies for those too squeamish to handle the problem themselves. However, as the scale of the epidemic continues to grow, it eventually becomes clear that their only hope is to escape the island entirely, hoping the problem is less severe on the mainland. There is a fair amount of cultural stuff here, which doesn’t necessarily translate well: Chris, whose family is Cuban (and she had to be carried out as a babe in arms, shortly after the revolution) likely appreciated a lot more of the tone and language here, which is almost impossible to get over in subtitles.

But there’s a lot of endearing stuff that does work, not least Juan himself, who is a great character round whom to build the collapse of civilization, close to the equal of Shaun, and flowering similarly in the face of crisis. The rest of his posse are just as entertaining, such as the transvestite and her bodyguard who faints at the site of blood. There are some great set-pieces, such as the use – on more than one occasion – of a spear-gun to deal with the threat, and the technical aspects, from the zombie make-up through to some impressive CGI, like a helicopter flying into a federal building, are much better than I expected. I do wonder how Cuban authorities reacted to the film: it was obviously shot with official approval, but the script hardly pulls its punches in terms of satire: at one point, it’s implied Juan is getting a call from someone in the Castro family, asking him to take care of Fidel.

And I was impressed to discover that the amphibious car built for use as their escape route is, in fact, absolutely based on reality. Bonus points for having Sid Vicious snarling his version of My Way over the final scene: that’s an adequate summary of the cross-cultural pollination which is going on here, and even for those entirely unfamiliar with the culture, this is a fresh setting against which to play out the well-loved story of man vs. undead.