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Review: "Juan of the Dead"

August 3, 2012 12:22 a.m.

KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando reviews the Cuban zombie film "Juan of the Dead."

Related Story: Review: 'Juan Of The Dead'


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ANCHOR INTRO: The San Diego Latino Film Festival kicks off its 13th annual fall film series, Cinema En Tu Idioma, by bringing back one of the most popular films from their spring festival. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando has this review of Cuba's first zombie film, "Juan of the Dead."

JUAN (ba).wav 3:55 (music out at 5:08)

TAG: "Juan of the Dead" plays tonight through Thursday at the UltraStar Mission Valley Theaters at Hazard Center. Beth will be introducing the 8:30pm shows tonight and tomorrow.

You can't escape them. They're everywhere you turn. And now zombies are invading from Cuba.

JUAN 1 open with zombie

GLENN HEATH: Well I think Juan of the Dead being from Cuba really establishes the sense of resiliency in the characters the sense that no matter what happens, if it's extreme poverty or zombie apocalypse that they will be able to overcome through this resourcefulness.

Glenn Heath is a programmer for the San Diego Latino Film Festival. He's happy to see "Juan of the Dead" brought back to life for a week-long engagement at UltraStar Mission Valley. The title character, who looks like a Cuban John Turturro, initially doesn't know what to make of the reanimated corpses.

JUAN 5 Vampiros?

First he and his friends think they are vampires and try staking them.

JUAN 5 SFX staking

Then they think the people are possessed and try exorcism.

JUAN 5 Religious chant

But then the government informs them of what the flesh eating creatures really are...

JUAN 3 TV news - dissidents financed by the United States.

They're dissidents paid for by the United States. Heath says the film uses zombies as the perfect blank slate for social commentary.

GLENN HEATH: It takes the Cuba-West relationship and treats it in an incredibly savvy and ironic way where the zombies are called dissidents or people that are trying to rebel against the communist regime and yet there are all these capitalist impulses running through the everyday citizens.

Like Juan, who sees the zombie apocalypse an opportunity to start a business -- killing loved ones when they rise from the dead.

JUAN 10 TV spot - Juan de las muertos...

GLENN HEATH: It's this very clever spin on a classic tale of the lower classes rising up and taking control of their own destiny when government falls apart and... it's interesting how it focuses so intensely on these experiences by the lower class people that it's really kind of championing.
And that's probably why the film's able to takes swipes at the Communist government, because it celebrates the spirit of the Cuban people. It captures their humor, ingenuity, and resiliency. These are people who can fight zombies with slingshots or make a boat out of junkyard trash.

But the film can be humorously critical as well. As when Juan sends his cohorts to save a handicapped old man and they come back using his wheelchair to carry black market liquor. They report, the old man died and we took his chair... but not necessarily in that order.

The film's also critical or at least suspicious of foreigners. A do-gooding pastor may offer some help but he's seen as self-righteous and condescending. Yet he does properly identify the enemy threat.

JUAN 8 They are zombies... I will kick ass for the lord.

That lines is a reference to Peter Jackson's zombie flick "Dead Alive." And that's another treat. "Juan of the Dead" plays knowingly off the genre. At one point someone raises the question, "Why are some zombies fast and some slow?" That's a classic genre debate and Juan's friend is disappointed when no clarification is served up. These references reveal that while the government may try to keep foreign influences out, they do get in. So its fun and interesting when Juan mentions "Scarface," that his friend asks if it's the old Paul Muni one or the new one with Pacino?

The film engages in some cartoonish exaggeration but the characters at their core feel real and we come to care about them. In the end, the thing that defines Juan the most is that he loves his country and no matter what comes, he will stay and he will survive. He jokes that he survived Mariel, Angola, and what he calls "that special period and the thing that came later," so he'll survive the zombie apocalypse... but his way.

CLIP song My Way

Beth Accomando, KPBS News.