Saturday, April 21, 2012
Juan of the Dead
A few months ago, towards the end of last year, the Leeds International Film Festival announced a rather exciting looking UK premiere in the shape of the world's first Cuban zombie film Juan of the Dead. Sadly, given that I was volunteering at the time (and watching as many films as I could cope with...) I missed it. Given that foreign cult films are sometimes ridiculously slow to appear on DVD here in the UK, I thought I'd missed it altogether. So it was a pretty nice surprise to see the fabulous Bradford Film Festival schedule it as part of their After Dark strand of horror films this year.
As a lover of many things Spanish/LatinAmerican and all things Zombie, perhaps I was somewhat determined to enjoy this. Even so, sometimes that hyped excitement is the surest way to guarantee disappointment. After all, when you're looking forward to a film that much it's going to be hard for it to meet expectations (this is also a worry of mine about Iron Sky, the much-hyped Nazis-on-the-moon adventure...). Thankfully, JotD offered no such disappointment. It was great fun from start to finish.
Juan is a tongue-in-cheek zombie killing rampage with plenty of laughs, some fun gore and not a lot in the way of horror. It's decidedly more in the Dead Snow and Shaun of the Dead lines than Dawn of the Dead or other more (ahem) 'serious' zombie films - this was probably a sensible choice: straight-faced zombie horror can be pretty hard to pull off, especially with a comparatively inexperienced cast (French suburban zombie masterpiece La Horde shows how well it can be done though!). Anyway, Juan sensibly balances laughs and splatter, with the obligatory bit of soul-searching and character improvement.
The basic premise is left beautifully stark. Havana is overrun with zombies. Juan and friends are trying to survive. That's about all there is to it. Like many of the classics they don't waste much time on life-before-zombies and they certainly don't bother explaining where the zombies come from - although the TV reporter blames American imperialists, a neat joke on both Cuban news/propaganda and the (modern) zombie's links to American consumerism. For the most part it just throws us into the middle of the fray as the Juan, his estranged daughter, his best friend and a couple of others start bashing, slashing, smashing and splattering zombies.
It's not perfect. But who really expects perfection from a zombie flick? The plot is essentially pretty episodic: Juan and friends go to one place, kill zombies. Another place, kill zombies. Go home. Go out. Kill Zombies. Etc. etc. Luckily it's all carried out with such obvious enthusiasm that it never really gets boring. It's slightly spoiled by some astonishingly crappy CGI though. Before computer graphics, designers had to find a convincing way to show something or just not show it. If only this were still true. Shots like a helicopter smashing into Cuban government buildings were obviously prohibitively expensive to shoot properly so would have been better left out entirely. Instead the computer generated helicopter just looks cheap.
The gore's good though! Some nice splatters, severed limbs and oozing wounds show just what fun you can have with real physical special effects. And, even if it is episodic, some of the episodes are so damn good that you can forgive them entirely: one scene sees the heroes naked, unarmed and handcuffed to a zombie in the back of a van... There are lots of wry jokes at the Cuban regime and it's claims - the zombies are referred to as dissidents throughout - and one of the characters carries both a Cuban and a US flag to wave depending on who wins. It's also suitably cavalier with its characters: several central characters meet gruesome ends and, at the beginning at least, the gang seem to accidentally kill as many humans as they do zombies (accidentally shooting an old lady with a harpoon...).
Overall, it's the enthusiasm that holds this film together. It's made by people clearly enjoying the chance to make the first Cuban zombie film and their enthusiasm is infectious. Juan is somewhat uneven but so are most zombie films. It's generally a lot of fun.
(The Bradford Film Festival is screening it again on Sunday 22nd and the film will get a DVD release on 4th June. Hurrah!)