Popular culture passed the zombie saturation point long ago, but for those who can handle yet another 90 minutes of blood spatter and brain-eating, the horror comedy Juan Of The Dead offers a reasonably clever spin on the genre, with more social commentary than most of these movies usually muster. (Outside of the George Romero films, that is.) Alexis Días De Villegas plays Juan, a middle-aged Havana ne’er-do-well who spends his days drinking whiskey, fishing off a raft, and hanging out with a motley band of petty thieves and deviants. Then a zombie plague hits—as it always must—and De Villegas and his pals find themselves uniquely suited to survive it, since they live in a slum and are accustomed to scraping and scrounging. Once De Villegas figures out that the only way to kill the zombies is to impale them through the brain, he offers his extermination services—for a fee—to those who haven’t yet boated off the island. When his estranged daughter sees how good he is at skewering the undead, De Villegas shrugs and says, “They taught me that in Angola. Long story.”
Juan Of The Dead isn’t particularly scary. The zombies are too slow, the digital effects are cheesy-looking, and the movie takes such a casual, blackly comic approach to death that even when one of the main characters gets eaten, there’s no lasting impact. But writer-director Alejandro Brugués comes up with some cool-looking kills—always the top priority for a zombie movie—and he makes Havana as much of a character as his hero. It’s not just the crumbling buildings and sun-dappled concrete that make the location of Juan Of The Dead so distinctive. Brugués ties the zombie crisis to Cuba’s past and present, having De Villegas compare their state of austerity to “The Special Period” and having the state-run news media suggest that the zombies are just “dissidents,” paid by the United States to stir up trouble.
None of this fazes De Villegas or his cronies, who tote around a Cuban flag and an American flag, to ally themselves with whomever ends up in charge. At the start of the film, De Villegas explains why he’ll never leave Cuba, saying, “This is paradise, and nothing will change that.” From the rocked-up Afro-Cuban soundtrack to the camaraderie of the outcasts, Juan Of The Dead offers a weird but heartfelt tribute of a kind to those Cubans who persevere no matter what changes their homeland goes through. Scarcity, starvation, zombies… all just another day in Havana.
Key features: Almost 15 minutes of deleted scenes, with explanations from Brugués; plus a short, fairly routine “Hey, how’d they do that?” featurette.