Focus Features // 2011 // 96 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // August 16th, 2012
He's Havana killer day.
Juan (Alexis Diaz Villegas) is a spindly, laid back Cuban who spends most of his time doing the occasional illegal odd job with his slacker best bud Lazalo (Jorge Molina). After discovering a body in the ocean while fishing, Juan and Lazalo quickly realize Havana is under attack by a siege of hungry man-munching zombies! Gathering together a small group -- a crossdressing street walker (Jazz Vila), Lazalo's lazy son (Andros Perugorria), and Juan's beautiful daughter Camila (Andrea Duro) -- Juan sets up a business to help rid local neighbors of the undead. When the city devolves into utter chaos and many flee to the safety of the United States, Juan realizes that making a quick buck is nothing compared to making a stand against an army of the undead!
It will come as no surprise that Juan of the Dead is a semi-companion piece to writer/director Edgar Wright's modern day cult classic Shaun of the Dead. Both movies are essentially parodies/homages to George A. Romero's original Dawn of the Dead, itself a sequel to his seminal classic Night of the Living Dead. In the forty plus years since that film took a bite out of moviegoers, zombies have become a cash-making cottage industry; from social commentary (Day of the Dead, Diary of the Dead) and comedic spin-offs (Return of the Living Dead, Re-Animator) to wildly uneven remakes (Zack Snyder's wonderful Dawn of the Dead and the pitiful Day of the Dead).
Juan of the Dead revels in the same spirit as its 2004 British predecessor, but is harder to embrace because the characters aren't nearly as likable or noble as Shaun (Simon Pegg) and Ed (Nick Frost). Juan and his crew often perform unspeakable acts on innocents (e.g. leaving an old man to die at the hands of the undead, so they can use his wheelchair to transport stolen tequila back home) and spend much of the movie trying to make a quick buck off other people's suffering. I realize it sounds like I'm projecting too much morality onto a B-movie, but if you don't have characters you can root for the experience inevitably loses some of its appeal.
While I'd like to proclaim that comedy is universal, when it comes to reading subtitles something gets lost in translation. If I spoke Spanish fluently, Juan of the Dead might have been a far more amusing experience. In comparison, Shaun of the Dead relied on heavy nuance and vocal inflection to get across its overseas cheeky humor. Since I spent the bulk of my time reading subtitles and not listening to voices, I ended up missing many of the beats that make this comedy work. In the same vein, the acting looks good, but because the humor is hard to spot (when it's not physical or really well-written), I can't really comment on the performances except to say that Alexis Diaz Villegas does a fine job as Juan, and Jazz Vila's crossdressing China is certainly a hoot.
For all the negatives, Juan of the Dead still retains a light and fun spirit that's certainly infectious (pun intended). I enjoyed some of the darkly humorous elements (the elderly are a real target), while the zombie effects and grizzle are plentiful. Even some of the visuals -- like when the camera pans underwater to show an army of the undead marching across the ocean floor -- are beautifully rendered. One sequence in particular involving a large group of zombies, a pick up truck, and a harpoon almost made up for any of the story deficiencies.
Although Juan of the Dead wants to include some political commentary about Cuba and the state of unrest there, most of it gets lost under gallons of blood and dismemberment. Much like Romero's films, this is a monster movie with a few big ideas bubbling under the surface. However, unlike Romero, director Alejandro Brugues is more interested in oozing corpses than making big statements.
Presented in standard definition 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, transfer looks good for DVD, even if much of the movie takes place at night and in darkened interiors. . I was pleasantly surprised with how good this Dolby 5.1 Surround mix (in Spanish with English subtitles) sounds. The rear and side speakers are given quite a workout whenever the zombies shamble on screen. No alternate language tracks or subtitles are included. Bonus features are rather slim, limited to a short behind-the-scenes featurette, and a few deleted scenes.
As a horror fan I'm all for creative new ways to dispatch zombies, and Juan of the Dead scores major points for coming up with some wholly original and hysterical ways to put the dead back in their graves. Though the characters and plot aren't as substantial as they could be, the filmmakers have at least offered up a good old fashioned zombie flick for fans to chew on, even if I didn't understand half of the jokes.
Not Guilty. Entertaining, but not classic.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Focus Features
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scenes