Juan of the Dead reclaims the zombie as a metaphor, applying it to a country with a lot on things to say but too few ways to say them. It could be easy to overlook this fact because Juan of the Dead is so funny, you can easily lose yourself in the pure entertainment value, but this is horror filmmaking more radical and dangerous than anything Tom Six could figuratively or literally crap out onto the screen.
Basing a zombie apocalypse in Cuba already sets the film apart from the crowd, it's untouched territory for this well-worn scenario, but the way it is incorporated is where the movie truly becomes something ballsy and smart.
The government's propaganda constantly blame the Americans for the zombie plague, referring to the walking dead as "dissidents". Juxtaposing Che Guevara and other revolutionary imagery with scenes of bloody carnage, the film is very clearly of its time and place. The zombies are revolutionaries, establishing a new regime as oppressive and crushing as the last. While the film references other zombie movies, they are brief nods, overall Juan of the Dead is a thoroughly unique creation and could not be remade in any other setting.
The movie has a real Cuban spirit, celebrating the resilience and spirit of the Cuban people while mocking the establishment. Even the weaponry is thoroughly Cuban life, the way the cricket bat worked for Shaun, the oar and harpoon gun work for Juan and his best friend Lazaro.
Juan has lived through so much turbulence in Cuba, something that gives him and his friends a harder edge, they are people used to violent change and it has helped cultivate a strong survival instinct in them. Particularly Juan. This takes form in opportunism; Juan discovers a way to profit from the catastrophe. In times of war or other similar crises, you would bootleg or hoard rations, cashing in on the vices or necessities of others.
In a zombie apocalypse, however, Juan and his friends take advantage of a very common problem during an undead plague: Killing your loved ones. No one wants to do it, it's a common trope in the zombie genre and always one of the most belaboured points in any zombie film. Juan offers a service to take care of your loved ones for you, sparing you the emotional strain of doing it yourself.
Due to their tougher world view, the film has a surprisingly cavalier attitude towards human life, but hilariously so, and not at the cost of empathy for the leads. The chemistry between Juan, the brilliant Alexis Díaz de Villegas, and Lazaro, Jorge Molina, feels honest and earned. Juan can go from verbally blasting Lazaro for unintentionally ruining their plans to sharing a quiet, heartfelt moment over a bottle of rum; it feels like a natural bond with a rhythm that could only be shared between old friends.
It won't let a somber moment last too long, however, before it dishes out more jokes. Did I mention that Juan of the Dead is a lot of fun? That's something so often ignored when making a genre movie with serious subtext but the primary concern is to entertain and it does so wonderfully. The kills are often bloody and imaginative (including one of the best mass-zombie kills in horror history) but it's the interplay between Juan, Lazaro and his motley crew of zombie killers that really sells this film. These moments are so rich with character that these men and women could headline a non-zombie movie and still make one of the most entertaining movies of the year.
Alejandro Brugués directs with genuine style and confidence but, most crucially, with scope. I have not researched the actual budget for this film but whatever it is the movie looks like it cost a lot more. This is ambitious stuff on a scale the zombie genre does not often see; with big crowd scenes, exploding buildings and more. It rivals the higher profile, bigger budget Dawn of the Dead remake in terms of size but with the brains and passion of the smaller, thoughtful work of Romero and the slick style of Edgar Wright.
Smart, funny and breathlessly paced, Juan of the Dead is a classic in the making; a breath of fresh air from the stagnant lungs of the zombie genre. I sincerely hope it finds as wide a distribution as possible because this movie has genuine crossover appeal and will be a huge hit with audiences.