Alejandro Brugues’ Juan Of The Dead is a fairly amusing horror/comedy from Cuba which ultimately runs out of steam, but not before taking an intriguingly satirical glance at the country’s political climate.
Alexis Dias de Villegas – who resembles a near-perfect genetic splice between John Turturro and The Wire’s Bubbles – is the eponymous Juan, a charismatically down-at-heel odd-jobs man prone to puttering around Havana with his corpulent, sex-obsessed sidekick Lazaro (Jorge Molina) in tow. Juan’s life, other than conducting a risky affair with a married woman, is pretty bare; he’s a likeable rogue with a history of failed relationships, and an estranged daughter who lives with her mother.
Before long, creeping zombies begin to attack the town’s population, though they are misidentified by our heroes as dissidents paid for by the US government. Following the careworn generic template, a rag-tag band of last-ditch, have-a-go-heroes (led by Juan) assemble and attempt to save the day with inevitably bloody, queasily humorous consequences. The twist arrives when Juan hits upon the idea of making some quick cash from his group’s exploits.
The film’s greatest strength lies in its creation of a convincingly desolate landscape upon which to unfold the action. Like Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, it takes a recognizably vibrant area and scorches it with a digital sheen, resulting in a creepy, slick barrenness. Despite the film’s obviously skimpy budget, there’s an impressively inventive approach to gore manufacturing, with early set pieces proving particularly effective.
The acting is of a varying standard. As Juan, de Villegas exudes a shambolic charm, though he is guilty of some pretty wild overacting on occasion (those staring eyes!) The outstanding performance probably comes from Andros Perrugorria as Vladi, Lazaro’s cocksure yet sensitive son. Beneath all the manic action, another compelling feature of the film is its unusual satirical bent, which is clearly signposted enough for the uninitiated to cotton onto, but not quite overwhelmingly sledgehammer in approach.
Sadly though, Juan of the Dead never quite gets its pacing right, and starts to drag at a disconcertingly early stage. Scenes feel repetitive, and there’s also a distinct lack of chemistry between Juan and his main foil, the rather unpleasant Lazaro. Unlike Shaun Of The Dead (a film which, unsurprisingly, Juan quotes from explicitly), we’re never able to feel too deeply for these characters. Neither is the film particularly horrific or suspenseful, placing greater stock instead in comedy. Sadly, much of the humour simply falls flat, recoursing too often to the dodgy waters of ‘zany’, when a lighter, subtler touch is surely called for.
Worst of all, there’s a pronounced strain of homophobia throughout which doesn’t appear to be in any way ironic, and finally tips into a retributive viciousness that’s immensely difficult to swallow. Whereas Shaun…‘s Frost and Pegg embraced the undeniable homoeroticism inherent in the buddy genre, Juan… figuratively coaxes it out, then coshes it in an unpalatable, cowardly cinematic gay-bashing.
Ultimately, Juan Of The Dead emerges as a worthwhile, if not especially memorable, addition to the zombie horror genre. It’s not the finished product by any stretch – it’s far too uneven for that – but Brugues has certainly marked himself out as a directorial name to watch.