Thursday, August 9, 2012

Juan de los Muertos (2011)

Title: Juan de los Muertos, a.k.a. Juan of the Dead  (2011)

Directed: Alejandro Brugues

Cast: Alexis Díaz de Villegas, Jorge Molina, Andrea Duro, Andros Perugorria, Jazz Vila


A couple of years ago, a friend of mine made a trip to Cuba for scholastic reasons. She lived and went to school there; so she had the whole ‘Cuban Experience’. According to the stories she brought back from her trip, going to Cuba can be a cultural shock for anyone accustomed to the comforts that capitalism has to offer. But the best part of the whole ordeal was that she came back with these beautiful pictures of streets filled with cars from the 1950’s, huge cemeteries filled with these awesome looking tombstones and the city, which is made up of old buildings that looked like something straight out of a post apocalyptic film. The first thought that popped into my head? Cuba would make a great setting for a zombie flick! Well, low and behold a couple of months later I heard they were shooting ‘Juan de los Muertos’ there. I was excited to see the film because I’ve made two DIY zombie films myself Cannabis Cannibal (2008) and Cannabis Cannibal Exodus (2009), two very low budget ‘guerrilla style’ films that people have grown to love. So the prospect of making a full blown zombie movie (read: a film with a real budget) that takes place in the Caribbean is something that I’ve always wanted to do myself; but alas, director Alejandro Brugues went ahead and did it before me. The question remained in my mind: Would it have the necessary production values to be a good zombie flick? Could they pull off a zombie apocalypse convincingly and would it be a memorable film?

Juan de los Muertos tells the story of a pair of slackers, Juan and his best buddy Lazaro. They like living in Cuba because their life is a very laid back one, all they’ve chosen to worry about is fishing and stealing in order to survive. They get by through life looking for the next hustle, simply put, they are used to living in a constant struggle, but with little worries about being successful or achieving anything. Problem is that life has other plans for them, like making them face a zombie apocalypse head on! One day as Juan and Lazaro are fishing, they catch a zombie instead of a fish! Suddenly everyone in Cuba is turning into zombies! Juan being a survivor and an opportunist, dreams up a way of capitalizing on the whole thing: he will kill your zombified loved ones for you. Kind of like The Ghostbusters, but for zombies! How long will the business go on? 

Chilling Out During The end of the World

So first things first, I loved this freaking movie! It has all the things you want and need in a zombie movie, like gore and cool looking zombies, but above all things what I loved most about Juan de los Muertos was how mordantly funny it was! And here’s what I love about seeing horror films from other parts of the world: they bring a fresh new element to a genre that’s otherwise worn. I mean, seriously, how many zombie movies have you seen where they simply go through the same types of conversations and situations? Juan de los Muertos offers this up: a fresh new take on the zombie genre. The simple fact that the film takes place entirely in Cuba and the way Cuban people act and talk is what made it such a refreshing watch for me. Unfortunately, maybe some of the humor will be lost on American audiences, because some of the jokes are very, very Cuban. The kind of jokes you’d only understand if you’ve lived there, or understand what Cuba is all about. But fear not, for the most part I think anyone can find humor on this one. The motley crew of zombie killers is really what makes it so funny. Take for example Juan, the protagonist of the film. He’s a slacker, he’s got a girlfriend he visits sometimes for sex, but she’s married! He’s not a very good father. His daughter hates him; she doesn’t even call him dad because he steals from her, his own daughter! His best friend sticks to Juan like glue and has no problems kicking the living daylights out of some dude that owes him money. Another member of the group is a transvestite who goes around stealing radios from cars because as she says “I have to survive somehow”. Another one kills zombies while smoking weed! So we got this really crazy group of individuals whom we follow through out the whole film, the cast made things livelier and funnier than they could have been.

Thematically speaking, the film touches upon many political issues, one of them being the never ending struggle between capitalism vs. socialism. Which is the best? Which has proven to be most successful in the world? I like the fact that the film does not idealize the way socialism has treated Cuba. There is an idealized form of socialism, one in which we are all equal, and then there’s the form of socialism currently existent in Cuba, where everyone except the government is the same: the people are extremely poor while the government gets the best of everything. To me that’s just another form of dictatorship, and of course living in a country like that must be a real struggle. I’ve never personally been to Cuba, but I have family members and friends who have traveled there, and the stories they bring back are of really good, kind people living in the middle of chaotic socio-political situation. Politics reigns supreme over peoples lives, and big brother is most certainly watching you. It’s the kind of town were freedom of speech is none existent and speaking against the government will get you into serious amounts of trouble. People have to really hustle to get by, which is exactly the kind of character Juan is. Many Cubans are tired of living on that constant struggle and for many, leaving the island is the solution to all their problems, which is a theme reflected on Juan de los Muertos. Consequently, my own film Cannabis Cannibal Exodus speaks of the same theme; it’s why it’s called EXODUS, which refers to leaving. It’s the idea that things are so messed up in your country, that you have no choice but to leave it all behind and search for new horizons elsewhere. I also thought it was interesting how the film isn’t one sided with these themes, while some want to leave and see that as the solution to their problems, others will want to stay in Cuba and try and improve it, change it. So the film isn’t’ preachy or one sided, its pretty even handed with the political themes it touches upon.

And how is Juan de los Muertos as a zombie flick? Well, I have to say I was extremely pleased with it, in fact is surpassed my expectations. While at first it is obviously similar to Shaun of the Dead (2004) in certain scenes, specifically when the humans see zombies on the streets and to them it’s the same as seeing regular people on the streets everyday, I’d say that’s about as close as it gets in terms of similarities with that film. Juan of the Dead is its own creature. It has more then one memorable zombie sequence, but one really blew me away. The good guys kill hundreds of zombies in one swoop, not gonna spoil it but that scene was ultra cool. The film pays its respects to the king of zombie movies, George Romero, by having an America zombie killer introduced into the story who looks exactly like George Romero, right down to the huge glasses and the wide eyed look. One scene blew me away, where we literally see thousands of zombies walking beneath the ocean…I mean, the zombie gags on this movie just kept coming and coming.

Technically, the film looks beautiful. I think this is one of the films greatest strengths. It was very well shot. Same as with the Brazilian zombie flick Porto Dos Mortos (2010), which to me was that much more special simply because we get to see these awesome vistas of Brazil, the fact that Juan de los Muertos was shot entirely in Cuba offers us some beautiful vistas of  Cuba, a city in decay. Cuba is a really beautiful island with many beautiful places in which one could shoot a film, but this film focused mostly on the urban landscape of Cuba rather then the mountains and the more nature oriented vistas that the island has to offer; which in the other hand is what sets it apart. Cuba is made up of crumbling buildings which the government doesn’t care to fix up. A building might be literally falling apart on people, and no one will do anything to fix it! On the other hand government buildings are impressive looking and the director took advantage of these as well. So we got a good looking movie shot in some very unique locations. All this adds up to a very unique and incredibly funny zombie flick that I highly recommend. I think the only downside to the film is that sometimes, the visual effects aren’t all that great, but these occurrences are few. Juan de los Muertros is special in many ways, but chief amongst them is the fact that this is the first Cuban zombie film! Check it out if you want to see something different and if you want to laugh, I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

 Rating: 4 out of 5 


Jay Shatzer said...

Awesome write-up! I've been dying to see this movie for myself and luckily the wait is almost over. I'm so glad you dug the film and I have a feeling that I'm going to have a similar response when I finally take it all in.

Thanks for taking the time and putting your feelings down on the film and I also liked the added persepective that you gave from a fellow independent zombie filmmaker's point of view. I also got the chance to make my own zombie film, Among the Fallen, and like you, I've always dreamed of being able to make a Caribbean themed zombie movie. That's one of the main draws that pulled me in about this flick. There's nothing better than seeing a genre that you love through fresh eyes and new cultures, and I think Juan of the Dead does just that.

Can't freaking wait to see it for myself and thanks again for the write-up. Loved it!

Franco Macabro said...

Yeah, for me that's what made it special, the cuban people themselves, the characters are funny, but they feel real somehow. As you say, the story is being told from the perspective of a culture that's never made a zombie film before, so that makes it special as well. It's the Cuban way of being that sets this one apart.

Yeah, "I have a dream" and it is to make a full length zombie film, with a budget. Which is why I have to admit to being a bit jealous of these guys making this particular film, because it's kind of around the same ball park of what I'm hoping to achieve.

But in the end, there's no way I could have hated this one, it had so many things that attracted me to it. I was always ultra curious during the whole production process, there's tons of behind the scenes pics, it seems like it was a real task to make this film, but the people of Cuba were willing to be zombies, tons of people showed up for the filming!

Hope you enjoy the film and thanks for the kind words about the review


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