Review: Juan of the Dead

Directed by Alejandro Brugués

Starring Alexis Díaz de Villegas,  Jorge Molina, Andrea Duro

Release date 4 May 2012 (UK cinemas)

The zombie apocalypse has arrived in Cuba. This catastrophe offers the opportunity for the lunk-headed but resourceful Juan (de Villegas) and Lazaro (Molina) to start up a business. They offer to dispatch anyone’s undead friends, family and neighbours – for a fee…

In recent years the zombie new-wave has thrown up efforts from all over the globe, from Greece to Pakistan and from France to Norway, so it’s no surprise that we now have Cuba’s first undead epic.

As you might expect from the title, the emphasis here is very much on laughs, as our hapless heroes decide to profit from the flesh-eating horror that unfolds before their fairly unsurprised eyes.

There’s a Romero-esque attempt at satire as the heroes mistake the zombies for “dissidents”, along with copious references to such Cuban cultural touchstones as the Special Period, patriotic meetings, the ongoing stalemate with the US and squeezing money out of tourists.

All of which isn’t anywhere near as much fun as it sounds.

Killer lines or set-pieces are thin on the ground (though there’s a not-bad attack on an army bus), while the dopey and rather homophobic heroes are more obnoxious than likeable.

The best zom-coms (Shaun of the Dead, Return of the Living Dead, Braindead, Zombieland etc) rely heavily on the charm of their protagonists. Here the heroes think nothing of killing non-zombies in cold blood because they owe them money, and show little emotion when their supposed pals get slaughtered before their eyes. If they don’t care about anyone or anything, why should we?

The fact that the supporting characters are so casually offed means that there’s no sense of life or death stakes here or any sense of horror at all.

Even in those aforementioned zom-com classics, you were never in any doubt that there was something horrible and real going on around the characters – the comedy and horror fed off each other. There’s virtually no tension in Juan of the Dead (though there is quite a bit of ugly-looking CGI blood). That might not be a problem if Brugués’ film was funnier, but it’s just not sharp enough to compensate for the lack of terror or surprises.

Technically, it looks impressive for its low budget (which is more than you can say about many zombie efforts that wash up every month), and there is a certain novelty value in seeing the zombie apocalypse take place in the crumbling grandeur of Havana. But it doesn’t take long before the novelty fades, leaving us with yet another non-essential entry in the relentless zombie cycle.

VERDICT: Juan of the Dead is preferable to much of the by-rote zombie dreck that gets released every month – but not by much. Not funny or insane enough, despite the novelty of the setting. 4/10

Matt McAllister

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