Thursday, November 21, 2013
WINTER OF DISCONTENT: Juan of the Dead
Remember that “don’t mention the z-word” gag in ‘Shaun of the Dead’, a riposte to Danny Boyle’s preciousness in insisting that ’28 Days Later’ wasn’t a zombie film? At its most inspired, Alejandro Brugues’s ‘Juan of the Dead’ plays out as a politically-minded exposition of this concept – one, moreover, that you don’t necessarily need a thorough grounding in Cuban history to appreciate. Nothing here gets lost in translation.
Off the coast of Havana, middle-aged ne’er-do-well Juan (Alexis Diaz de Vilegas) and his equally irresponsible best bud Lazaro (Jorge Molina) encounter a corpse while out fishing. When it unexpectedly comes to life and lunges at them, Lazaro shoots it with a harpoon gun. The friends decide this is the kind of business best left unreported to the authorities and hasten back to shore, fishless, where Juan resumes his twin hobbies of drinking and womanising, and Lazaro clumsily tries to bond with his grown-up son California (Andros Perugorria). Neither suspect that they’ve witnessed the start of a zombie apocalypse. Then an aged neighbour dies … only to return moments later, suddenly ambulatory after years of infirmity and with a taste for human flesh. Again, Juan and Lazaro fail to understand, as they desperately fend him off, what the deal is. Vampirism? Cloves of garlic rammed in the living corpse’s mouth have no effect. Possession? They attempt an exorcism. (Contextual parenthesis: I watched ‘Juan of the Dead’ after a spectacularly shitty day and in a mood of abject grumpiness; during this sequence, I found myself laughing so hard I had to pause the DVD to wipe away the tears.) Later still, the streets of Havana flooded with similar undead shufflers, Juan and Lazaro watch a news report: there have been acts of unsocial behaviour, the bespectacled and humourless anchor announces, perpetrated by dissidents in the pay of the American government.
The word “zombie” is used once in ‘Juan of the Dead’. By an American. No-one speaks English. The explanation is lost on them. The opportunity, however, isn’t. You know how in most zombie films, the narrative pretty much channels itself towards an inevitable mismatched-group-of-survivors holed up in a claustrophically intense setting while the zombies effectively besiege them scenario? ‘Juan of the Dead’ laughs at that concept and gleefully romps all over Havana as its anti-heroes set up a business disposing of “dissidents”. Juan’s sales pitch, each time he answers the phone, is “Juan of the dead, we kill your relatives, how can I help you?”, a line that gets funnier the more it’s repeated, not least because de Vilegas is clearly struggling to keep a straight face each time he delivers it.
Joining in the fun are China (Jazz Vila), a drag queen with a kick-ass attitude and a killer pair of heels; El Primo (Eliecer Ramirez) a built-like-a-brick-shithouse bodybuilder who faints at the merest hint of blood; and Camila (Andrea Duro), Juan’s teenage daughter who morphs, with appealing rapidity, from clean-cut girl-next-door to Lara Croft wannabe, all cut-off jeans and a handy technique with a ball-peen hammer.
Together, they lurch from entrepreneurism to misadventure, from broad comedy to horrifying … uh, well, no. Not actually. Although ‘Juan of the Dead’ turns in a couple of relatively effective suspense scenes, any trade in grue or gore is played entirely for laughs. As a result, even though some of Juan’s band of merry “dissident”-slayers buy it, Brugues struggles to imply that there are any real stakes involved.
But that’s just nit-picking when the comedy is so effective. As a political satire, it works well. As as a comedy of the absurd, it works beautifully (there’s a fight scene staged as a tango that is just priceless). As a full-tilt, exuberant, utterly unapologetic belly flop into every about a specific genre that the film-makers so evidently love, it knocks the ball right out of the park. Indeed, with its deliberately cheesy special effects (a vehicle impacting into a harbour is strictly die-case-model-thrown-in-a-bathtub stuff), casually laconic protagonist and knowing upending of genre tropes, it’s as pure a B-movie love letter as ‘From Dusk Till Dawn’ or ‘Planet Terror’, and a lot funnier than either.