Fantastic Fest Review: Juan of the Dead (Juan de los Muertos)


Juan of the Dead

I'm a sucker for anything zombie: books, graphic-novels, posters and of course movies. A few months ago, a new trailer surfaced for a low-budget Cuban zombie flick called Juan de los Muertos (Juan of the Dead). The trailer was awesome (I've embedded it at the end of this review), and I knew I had to see this movie. When I found out Juan of the Dead was selected for Fantastic Fest I was muy happy. After watching this film I was muy muy happy -- Juan of the Dead is an amazing film.

Juan of the Dead tells the story of Juan (Alexis Diaz de Villegas), a slackerish Cuban always looking for his next score. When a zombie outbreak occurs, Juan doesn't see it as a crisis but as an opportunity. Juan and his buddies set up shop helping people dispose of friends and loved ones who have turned into the undead.

This movie contains a lot of elements that today's zombie and horror fans will enjoy. Juan of the Dead has the DNA of Romero with slow-moving zombies. It has the comedic stylings of Shaun of the Dead. And returning to Romero, the movie has political themes (the government blames the zombie outbreak on U.S. insurgents). It's through the careful melding of these properties where Juan of the Dead succeeds, coming off as both serious and comedic. I feel that horror and comedy are two genres that share a lot of the same chromosomes and when properly joined, great movies can be created liket his one.

The quality of this film is as good as any major American studio release today. Writer/director Alejandro Brugues brings not only the unbeatable horror-comedy combination but also Cuban sensibilities that give us a flavor of life in Cuba, even with a zombie movie as the setting.

During the Q&A at Fantastic Fest, Brugues was asked if Shaun of the Dead was one of his influences. He was kind of taken aback by the question and asked why the questioner would see that. They mentioned the use of a boat oar as a weapon sharing similarities with Shaun using a cricket bat. Brugues' answer was interesting: People are not allowed to own guns in Cuba and would be forced to use commonly available items, in Juan's case a boat oar. This is but one instance of some of the cultural aspects of the movie. Brugeues provides insight without being deliberately preachy.

Another aspect of Juan of the Dead I found highly compelling was its special effects. The use of practical zombie makeup and effects work is top notch. A number of CGI effects were also fairly convincing. One of the shots was explained in the Q&A -- a scene where people are fleeing Cuba on numerous rafts and boats. Brugues said that shot was done one boat at a time and merged together digitally to create a convincing shot. He said they couldn't really have a hundred boats in the bay. It would have freaked the government out.

Juan of the Dead was one of the "darling" films of Fantastic Fest and I really hope some film distributor acquires it so others can see it. Heck, maybe we can all talk the Alamo Drafthouse into some screenings.