Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Juan of the Dead (2011)

The zombie film is a virus that has truly gone global, and joining recent efforts from the likes of Spain (REC) and Africa (The Dead) is Juan of the Dead, the first one ever to be made in Cuba. The basic plot may sound a little familiar, but with a combination of some creative and brilliantly executed set pieces, and a jet black sense of humour it is a fresh, funny and surprisingly poignant addition to the genre.

Juan is a 40-something layabout, whose days consist of petty crime, fishing, and swigging rum, aided and abetted by his best friend Lazaro. But when a mysterious virus sweeps across Cuba, turning the residents into flesh eating zombies, Juan must turn into a hero, and lead his friends and estranged daughter to safety - and make a few pesos at the same time.

The most obvious influence for this film is, not surprisingly given the name, Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg's Shaun of the Dead.  Both films have as main characters a lazy but well meaning man and his slob friend; both have a plot that revolves around a zombie apocalypse in their home town; and both are blessed with a director who can deftly blend laughs, shocks and gore - but there the similarities end. Juan is much more of an anti-hero than Shaun, as illustrated by his response to the zombie outbreak: after a lifetime of hustling, his first thought is "How can I profit from this?". The answer - his own Ghostbusters style zombie-killing service, Juan of the Dead (with it's refreshingly direct motto: "We kill your beloved ones"), and he and his friends take to the streets of Havana, armed to the teeth with clubs, machetes and throwing stars.

Despite being extremely gory, "Juan of the Dead" is primarily a comedy, with the humour coming from a mix of sources. Firstly the crude, scatological banter between the characters, particularly between Juan and Lazaro. Secondly, the gore itself, which comes from Monty Python style sight gags, juxtaposing blood and guts with comic situations, and, in some cases, taking aspects of Zombie mythology, (for example, having to damage their brains in order to properly kill them) to their logical extreme, such as in an hilarious descent in a lift with the dismembered top half of an elderly neighbour.  Thirdly there are some pointed digs at the Cuban government, a regime not usually noted for taking constructive criticism from it's citizens. The powers-that-be are shown as being unable to deal with the zombie outbreak, and their only answer is to use the state-run TV news to blame the deaths on "American dissidents" and blithely proclaim that everything is okay. In addition, the film-makers do not paint a very flattering picture of Havana itself, with the air of inertia and decay shown in every aspect of both the city and people before the zombies make an appearance.

Interestingly, the script does not get bogged down in explaining a great deal of zombie mythology, which maybe a sign that the undead are a large enough presence in popular culture that sufficient numbers of people are familiar with the rules of the genre. In addition, just like George Romero's classic Zombie trilogy (and more recent efforts like "Shaun...") hardly any time is spent discussing what is causing the zombie outbreak, the focus being pretty much entirely on the characters and their fight for survival in the here and now. Everyone manages to get themselves into increasingly hair-raising and ingenious scrapes, and out of them in similarly ingenious manners, and even if some of them seem a little too convenient in retrospect, at the time it's such an exhilarating ride, you barely notice. Within that, there is still space for a certain amount of characterisation, as Juan tries to make amends for the way he abandoned his now grown up daughter, and is faced with a horrible choice regarding Lazaro. Touches like this mean that, while the people on screen are by no means fully rounded three dimensional characters, they are still people that you grow to like, and, despite their flaws, to care about, making the final scene more touching than might otherwise be expected.