31 Nights of Horror: Juan of the Dead

Juan and Lazaro first get wind of the zombie apocalypse while fishing when they catch an orange jumpsuited zombie in the sea. After vowing to tell no one what they’ve seen, they return to Havana where things appear normal. By nightfall, though, the television has stories of US-sponsored dissidents causing problems in the street and encourages everyone to gather the next day for an anti-American rally. Of course gathering all the living in one plaza during the zombie takeover is a bad idea. Juan isn’t political, though. Having avoided the rally, but seeing his big break, he opens a new service: Juan of the Dead–We kill your relatives! Joined by Lazaro’s son California, a trans character going by La China and her beefy boyfriend Primero (who faints at the sight of blood), they make a good living for a while clearing out the undead from people’s houses for a tidy profit (double price for foreigners or people with family living abroad).

After being volunteered to recreate Cuba by the remnants of the military, the transport they’re riding in is infected. In the ensuing struggle, La China is bitten, eventually turns while handcuffed to Juan, and participates in a sprightly dance number before falling to her death. Shaken by the continued deterioration of their socialist paradise, they decide to get out of the city, but how do you escape a city when nothing works?

A Spanish-Cuban coproduction, Alejandro Brugues’ Juan of the Dead is a Cubano-centric response to the zombie genre. Juan is no idealist. He’s just a guy trying to make the best of a bad situation, kind of like he did during the Special Period. Only once are the infected referred to as zombies in the film. After being labeled so by the government, they are all dissidents. There are great one liners, my favorite of which comes while Juan and his group are looking for a car with which to escape Havana. After their first choice has an alarm and dissident inside, they settle into a old, worn car. No one sits in the drivers seat because Juan wanted to ride and no one else knows how to drive. Juan changes position, fights the car into cranking only to have it die after 30 seconds. His response? “Motherfucking Russians that brought these fucked up Lada cars to Cuba!”

Besides the political, the film out does many much higher budgeted pictures in creativity. With everyone on rafts fleeing the island, we get a glimpse of what is at the bottom of the sea. We see a country that’s long teetered at the edge of financial collapse pushed over the edge. Obviously a plague of zombies would go down differently in a poorer nation, but this is the first film I’ve seen that shows what it might be like.

Once again, 31 Nights of Horror veers into comedy, this time with political overtones, but Juan of the Dead is a great movie. I hope to see more Cuban-produced forays into genre cinema.