TIFF Review: Juan of the Dead

Juan of the Dead (2011, directed by Alejandro Brugues)

Shaun, Juan... I can hardly wait for Siobhan of the Dead, where beautiful Irish lasses fight zombies in slow motion to the haunting strains of Sinead O'Connor and Cranberries tunes. I suppose somebody's already working on Han of the Dead, where zombies invade a Comic-Con-like gathering of geeks. How about Von of the Dead, where a retired baseball player battles zombie Phillie fans?

Anyway, Juan of the Dead is an amusing little trifle. The titular Juan scratches out a living in Havana running whatever schemes he can to get by, and trying to make amends with his daughter Camila, recently returned from Spain. When folks start acting oddly and trying to eat people due to a batch of expired pharmaceuticals, Juan and his motley crew of friends try to exploit the situation by charging for their zom... excuse me, "dissident"-elimination services. The usual mayhem ensues, to a seductive salsa beat.

As zombie movies go, Juan of the Dead isn't up the level you'd expect from a North American feature. The make-up is no great shakes, the actors clearly have had no fight training whatsoever, and the film-making in general is a little rough. But what it lacks in polish it (almost) makes up in charm. The token political message (that the government denies anything is really wrong, and that the disturbances in the streets are being caused by Yankee-backed dissidents) makes for a good running joke, and the script is versed in the classics well enough to introduce a character who "kicks ass for the Lord" and then promptly gets accidentally offed, as well as the creation of a jury-rigged zombie-killing car that lacked only Raimi's hyperzooms to be a full-on Army of Darkness homage. A couple of the kills, particularly a truck-mounted harpoon that leads to the decapitation of a whole mob of zombies, are inventive too. It's also extremely cool to see a film like this actually shot in Havana in all its fading, run-down glory - I don't know how they got permission to shoot this, and don't want to know. The city is very nearly a zombie itself at this point, and an important character in the film in its own right.

The words that came to mind while watching Juan were things like "cute" and "endearing", even considering the presence of a comic relief sidekick who goes way beyond 'clumsily gross' and into 'why do they keep this useless disgusting pig around anyway?' territory. It's a fun, entertaining little time-waster.

Seriously though, Han of the Dead. If no one is making it right this second, I'm both deeply disappointed and calling dibs.

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