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Review: ‘Juan Of The Dead’

Dissident Zombies

Alexis Díaz de Villegas as the ever-resourceful

Credit: Outsider Pictures

Above: Alexis Díaz de Villegas as the ever-resourceful "Juan of the Dead."

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


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, "Juan of the Dead" (playing August 3 through 9 at the UltraStar Mission Valley Theaters at Hazard Center). Listen to my review for all the gory details.

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

"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.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Outsider Films

The zombie hunting team of "Juan of the Dead."

The title character, who looks like a Cuban John Turturro, doesn't know what to make of the reanimated corpses at first. First he and his friends think they are vampires and try staking them. Then they think the people are possessed and try exorcism. But then the government informs them of what the flesh eating creatures really are... They're dissidents of course, paid for by the United States.

Heath says the film uses zombies as the perfect blank slate for social commentary, "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 as the perfect opportunity to start a business... check out his TV spot.

Heath says, "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 writer-director Alejandro Brugués is able to takes swipes at the Communist government, because he celebrates the Cuban spirit. He captures their humor, ingenuity, and resiliency. These are people that can use just a sling shot to fight zombies 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 is also critical or at least suspicious of outsiders. A do-gooding pastor may offer some help but he's seen as self-righteous and condescending. But he does prove to be the only one to properly identify the enemy threat.

The pastor says, "They are zombies, the undead... I will kick ass for the lord."

That line's 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?

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Outsider Films

"Juan of the Dead"

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.

"Juan of the Dead" (unrated and in Spanish with English subtitles), like the best zombie films, provides fun, gore, and food for thought. So run, don't shamble down to UltraStar Mission Valley because it'll only be playing for a week. I'll be there with Horrible Imaginings' Miguel Rodriguez for the 8:30pm shows on Friday and Saturday. I have some goodies... if you're dressed as a zombie, you'll be far more likely to win.

Companion viewing: "Shaun of the Dead," "Dawn of the Dead," "Fido"

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