Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Juan of the Dead (Juan de los Muertos, 2011) **1/2

It's 2014, and we have spent the last few years fighting a zombie invasion. They are in our books, at the cineplex, and on our TV screens. All of us survivors now know the basic tropes of zombie fighting: They hunger for flesh. They are mostly slow, but sometimes fast. You kill them by destroying the brain. Finally, zombie-ism is spread by a bite or scratch, like rabies.

The horror of having our loved ones rise from the dead to devour us has become a cliché, and it's time we retire the genre, but not before we talk about “Juan of the Dead.”

Much like 2004's “Shaun of the Dead,” the hilarious Simon Pegg/Nick Frost comedy, “Juan of the Dead” riffs on the original of the genre, George Romero's 1978 “Dawn of the Dead.” “Dawn” is a pretty easy word to rhyme, and one could imagine this going on indefinitely: “Levonne of the Dead” (blacksploitation), “Don of the Dead” (a Mad-Men-themed version), “Lebron of the Dead” (zombie basketball) and so on.

Juan, a thief and general layabout, considers himself a survivor. He has persisted through poverty, prison, and the ups and downs of Cuban life. Thus, when the neighbors start rising from the dead as bloody biting machines, Juan takes it all with an insouciance that is at once fatalistic and pragmatic. While other Cubans flee the island in droves, Juan enlists his fellow shady characters to start a business. For cash, they clear people's houses of zombies. They are raking it in for a while, but eventually it becomes clear that the zombie outbreak is not a self-limited infection. The entire island is being overtaken, and the only intelligent option is to build a raft and flee.

As a comedy, “Juan of the Dead” mostly misses the mark. There are moments of humor, but the jokes are mostly broad. Where the movie succeeds is in its commentary on Cuban history, turning the zombie invasion into a metaphor for life in Cuba. Looking down from a rooftop as zombies attack the living on the street, Juan's daughter points out that “You can't tell the good ones from the bad ones.” Juan replies, “Things in Cuba haven't changed.” Later, after a night of zombie-fighting, Juan and his crew wait at a bus stop, because “No matter how bad things get in Cuba, public transportation runs, no matter what.” As things get worse and worse, more people flee on makeshift rafts, but Juan stays, figuring that sticking with his home is better than trying to build a new life elsewhere. Whether he is a hero or a fool depends on your point of view, and I imagine Cubans would give you a variety of answers to that question.

2.5 stars out of 5

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