Juan Of The Dead (Juan de los muertos)

Cuba/Spain (2011) Dir. Alejandro Brugués

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but there remains a fine line between inspiration and creating an original work worthy of being judged on its own merits. Alejandro Brugués actually pulls this off with his low budget political satire that doubles up as a zombie movie, playing off the title of British comedy Hot Fuzz. Or was it the other one?

Juan (Alexis Díaz de Villegas) and Lazaro (Jorge Molina) are two slovenly 40-somethings drifting through life in modern day Cuba and achieving little. Juan is trying to reconnect with his daughter Camila (Andrea Duro) who is moving to live with her mother in Miami, whilst Lazaro is keen to straighten out his womanising son Vladi (Andros Perugorría).

One night at a community meeting, a man bursts through the doors of city hall and attacks the mayor, biting her and others in his way. This soon seems to be spreading across the country, which the media claims is anti-government dissidents supported by America. These people are of course zombies and it is getting out of hand, but Juan sees this as a moneymaking opportunity and sets up his own zombie slaying business.

As you can see from this plot synopsis, it is only the puntastic title that connects Brugués’ film with Edgar Wright’s cult comedy (itself the bearer of a punning title) – the stories couldn’t be any different. Naturally, similar mileage is gained from the comedic potential of inventive zombie slaying methods which both take advantage of, but the deeper political satire of this film provides the humour with a stable anchor.

In both appearance and attitude, Juan and Lazaro are really everything that is wrong with modern society – two deadbeat dads setting the wrong examples to their children whilst prioritising their own debauchery. Juan is having an affair with a married neighbour and spies on lesbian Sara (Blanca Rosa Blanco), leaving Lazaro to pleasure himself to the stories Juan recounts about her.

Not exactly the best impression to leave if you are going to be the heroes of the tale. Before the zombie outbreak begins, Sara tells Lazaro he’d have to be “the last man on the planet” before she’d hook up with him, a cheeky foreboding of what it is to come. Juan fares little better when Camila venomously rejects him, only for the survival against being eaten bringing them together.

The central group is rounded off by Vladi, drag queen La China (Jazz Vilá) and man-mountain Primo (Eliecer Ramírez), who faints at the sight of blood and fights blindfolded. This diversity brings a different scope to the humour their personalities bring. La China is sassy and fearless, only carrying a slight trace of being a typical trope, but avoids being the target of ill-advised gender jokes.

However, this doesn’t stop Brugués aiming low with his gags elsewhere, such as the awkward bonding moments between Lazaro and Vladi and same-sex gags not aimed at La China. Quite often there are touches of Naked Gun-esque silliness where the zombie are involved providing some hearty laughs, but then other gags are in bad taste – like a man in wheelchair being sacrificed so Lazaro could sue his wheelchair to transport his looted beer.

In that respect, the satire of the political subtext is a welcome distraction. The Cuban government attempts to cover up the rampaging American influenced “dissidents” as a temporary scuffle that is under control whilst all hell is clearly breaking loose. This critique of state controlled media could be applied to so many countries I’m surprised it took this long to appear in a horror film!

Juan of the Dead is in fact the name of the service Juan sets up, his telephone greeting being “We kill your beloved ones”. Initially this was to be purely an exploitation racket but Camila’s disappointment in her father saw a change in policy to fairer rates. Like a clueless and less suitably armed Ghostbusters, the quintet hit the streets to exterminate the flesh-eating dissidents (yes, they believed the propaganda).

Some bold choices are made who gets to survive and who is expendable, but then again maybe there were quite obvious after all, depending on how attached one gets to the characters. There are many genre subversions in the script, most nicely done, some rather subtle, but Brugués is aware that he has to follow through with the main story so whilst the ending is left open, the journey to redemption runs a familiar route.

For the most part the casting is rather spot on, with Alexis Díaz de Villegas and Jorge Molina being the perfect physical embodiment of two hapless and hopeless individuals with balls of steel. The visual dichotomy of de Villegas tall, lean appearance and Molina’s stout, pot-bellied stature is prime comic duo fodder but works well here, carrying over the chemistry they create on screen.

Another genre staple, which I am sure was deliberate, is the idea that a feckless slob like Juan could produce such a stunning daughter in Camila, who we are to assume got her looks from her mother. Despite the obvious pairing with Vladi to spite daddy, Andrea Duro is spared any exploitation as the token female, instead afforded the chance to kick some zombie butt herself.

The FX are remarkable good as heads are squished and splattered, bodies bludgeoned and limbs severed; the CGI blood is not convincing but this has become a cheaper way to achieve this effect so it’s ubiquity is something we must bear. Observant viewers might spot the odd movie related tribute during these scenes from a range of sources that are fun to spot.

Whatever cinematic floodgates Shaun Of The Dead opened in exploiting the comedic capital of the zombie flick, we knew the imitators would be varied in quality. Ignore the cheekiness of the title; Juan Of The Dead is definitely one of the better and smarter ones out there.