Juan of the Dead immediately establishes itself as a somewhat noteworthy event in genre film history in that it marks Cuba’s first foray into the splatter-tastic world of horror movies. For this reason and this reason alone, writer/director Alejandro Brugues deserves a round of applause, a pat on the back and an expensive bottle of champagne to share with his cast and crew. The first step is always vital…even when that first step is a bit of a stumble, an admirably ambitious failure that starts to fall apart around the thirty minute mark.
That the film ultimately doesn’t work is a huge shame since the opening act is so genuinely exceptional. We’ve seen plenty of zombie invasions stateside (and plenty in Europe, for that matter), but seeing the undead rise to devour the flesh of the living in the sunny, colorful streets of Havana, Cuba is a breath of fresh air. These early scenes are leisurely paced, introducing us to our colorful cast (led by Alexis Diaz de Villegas as the titular Juan) and their equally colorful neighborhood through broad but effective character comedy. This is not a movie that could have been filmed anywhere — Cuba is a character in Juan of the Dead and Brugues shoots it with the eye of someone who has lived there his entire life. The attention to detail and the flawed, incredibly human characters give this world a true weight. Modern Cuba has rarely looked like this on film before.
And then the dead start to rise and so do the problems.
The first major zombie encounter — which involves one of the funnier attempted exorcisms you’ll see this year — is a blast, a clever combination of practical effects and true idiot wit. However, as the scale of the action increases, the film loses focus on its characters in favor of massive CGI set pieces that wouldn’t look out of place in a SyFy Channel original movie. When the film goes intimate and relies on practical effects and character dynamics, there are real sparks on screen, but it quickly abandons intimacy in favor of transforming into a live action cartoon, forcing the characters to speak in cliches as they wander from one oddly mean-spirited vignette to another. Additional character development, the resolution of subplots and the mourning of fallen friends all conveniently occur off screen. Instead, we’re treated to our formerly relatable characters instantly transforming into zombie-killing badasses who flip through the air like gymnasts and wield weaponry like they’ve been recruited for ‘Resident Evil 16’ or something. Would the cartoonish, CGI-laden zombie busting be more fun if the film hadn’t begun as something more quiet and slyly funny? Perhaps, but that opening sure does spoil us.
What makes Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead one of the best horror/comedies of all time is how it balanced character and location with its horror elements, creating a world that made logical sense and characters who managed to be funny yet all too human while they slashed and bludgeoned their way through hundreds of the walking dead. ‘Juan of the Dead’ desperately wants to strike that same tone (it even steals the whole Dawn of the Dead title riff schtick), but it makes its heroes unstoppable, it never gives them time to mourn and it increasingly values (admittedly inventive but often poorly rendered) zombie killing over a story and a cast that is worth caring about. de Villegas lends Juan a wiry, tough energy that’s completely endearing and his plan to take advantage of the zombie apocalypse to make a few bucks is hilarious, but he’s a complete and total cypher. It’s one thing for a character to be a slacker, but Juan is such a slacker that he spends the entire film doing nothing interesting, making few decisions and reaching conclusions that would have been interesting if we had seen him reach them onscreen.
There comes a point where Juan of the Dead starts to feel like a zombie-themed sketch comedy show, with the dwindling cast of characters avoiding any kind of interesting conflict in favor of wacky encounters with various guest stars (and an alarming number of gay panic jokes). With no plot to speak of, characters are forced to speak solely in exposition and subtext, making sure that the film’s satire — the zombies transform Juan and his team of zombie killers into raging capitalists — remains blatantly on the surface at all times.
Juan of the Dead has many of the problems inherent in a filmmaker’s first project. It’s clunky, sloppy and feels much longer than its running time. However, Brugues’ love for the horror genre is evident and when the film connects, it connects in a major way. A scene that takes us under the ocean to give us a peek what lurks beneath the surface of the water during a zombie uprising is inspired, a creepy and stunning moment that even manages to squeeze in a reference to a certain Fulci movie (you know the one). It’s moments like this that show that Brugues is a guy genre fans should keep an eye on, a guy whose enthusiasm for killing zombies spectacularly will hopefully soon be joined by patience for character and plot. If Juan of the Dead showcases his growing pains, his next film should hopefully display his maturation.