Saturday, 25 August 2012

Juan of the Dead - review

2011 (Cuba / Spain)

Contains mild spoilers.

'Juan de los Muertos' or Juan of the Dead is a comedy, action, buddy, zombie film set on the Caribbean island of Cuba and plays with all the historical and political struggles the people have endured since Christopher Columbus claimed the island for Spain back in 1492.

Written and directed by Argentinean Alejandro Brugués the film follows dead beat Juan (Alexis Díaz de Villegas) and his best friend Lazaro (Jorge Molina), good hearted petty thieves who spend their day drinking and making the best out of having nothing. Filmed in Cuba the movie is a real eye opener to life under a communist regime with mass poverty and desperate people but also the immense pride they have in their heritage and what they've already survived.

It's whilst coming up with a new business opportunity alongside Lazaro's mature son Vladi California(Andros Perugorría) who is following very much in his dad's footsteps and rival duo transvestite La China played by Jazz Vilá and his big muscle partner El Primo (Eliecer Ramírez) who faints at the first sign of blood, that Juan is introduced to the idea that the next big struggle is upon them. Playing with the poverty and ennui of a nation that endures and survives more than really lives, Brugués constantly pokes fun by contrasting Havana before and after the outbreak and how one needs to look extra hard to notice anything different.  It's in these early scenes that Juan comes to terms with the fact that not only is there something wrong but that it's not just the usual political kind of wrong.

After a government sponsored protest rally demonstrating Cuban solidarity against this new dissident threat goes horrendously wrong, and mass slaughter and pandemonium is brought to the city streets, Juan starts to take the whole thing seriously and his thoughts go to the only thing he actually cares for, his daughter Camila played by Andrea Duro who is over from Spain visiting her Grandmother.

Playing with the notion of constant revolution and upheaval, and how the Cuban's have shown they are capable of surviving anything the world throws their way, Juan sees the zombie uprising as not only 'just the next thing to deal with' but as something he as an established and well practised Cuban survivor can rise up against and profit from. So in scenes reminiscent of Ghost Busters, Juan and his gang embark on a enterprise to rid people of problematic friends, neighbours and loved ones, for a fee and there phone never stops ringing.

The action moves along at a frenetic pace  and there is never any filler. The action and zombie scenes are tense, bloody and downright over the top just when they need to be and they are unique and memorable throughout. The comedy is always tight, from constant socio-political satire at how the zombies are actually perceived by the people and government as dissidents and sponsored US agitators to numerous playful slapstick moments. The film is respectful to its roots and whilst there are some truly staged and absurd zombie scenes it's never parody and it never gets it wrong. The characters remain sincere and authentic and I don't think I've laughed so hard at a movie for some time.

Juan of the Dead captures Cuba with fantastic expansive urban scenes set against a beautiful tropical island background. It never feels like a b-movie with substandard effects, acting or cinematography and feels like a breath of fresh air with a lighter but no less deep approach to the genre. Authentic to the end, Juan of the Dead has risen to top of the pile and I can't recommend it enough. The casting and characterisation, which is so important to the genre, has no weak links and one of the best onscreen friendships I've enjoyed for some time shines throughout. Cuban Juan of The Dead offers something considerably different to traditional western zombie narratives, whilst retaining all the things that makes them great.

Stylish, hilarious, memorable, 10/10.