MOVIE REVIEW: TORONTO AFTER DARK SUMMER SCREENING – JUAN OF THE DEAD
The Toronto After Dark Summer Screenings opened with much enthusiasm with the horror-comedy Juan of the Dead. In it’s 7th successful year, TAD finally returns home to The Bloor HotDocs Cinema following its grand reopening after almost 2 years being closed for renovations. Promoted as Cuba’s first zombie movie, the film borrows elements from other genre films such as Shaun of the Dead (for it’s humour) and Dawn of the Dead (for it’s political tones) and acts as commentary on Cuba’s current state. Made with the support of the Cuban government and filmed on location in and around the streets of Havana, Juan of the Dead is better than most in the genre (Dylan Dog for example) but still falls into mediocre territory.
Juan (Alexis Díaz de Villegas) and his best friend Lazaro (Jorge Molina) open the film with the two on a man-made raft of bottles and old car tires. The two are fishing and talking idly about nothing important when suddenly Juan feels something on his line and pulls up a corpse, to which Lazaro impales with a harpoon. Unfazed, the two return home to continue the day with drinking on the apartment rooftop and going about their daily lives. The movie progresses and the typical zombie outbreak (in this case dissidents) claims Havana, the sickness being blamed on expired medicines, and the dissidents themselves. Soon enough a large population is zombified and a group of friends (Juan’s daughter and Lazaro’s son included) ban together to to fight for their lives and profit from the zombie invasion. Of course what horror-comedy wouldn’t be complete without the dead beat character predictably proving his worth somewhere along the way. Unfortunately, the script is laden with political and socio-economic satire which are geared to those with an understanding of Cuban history, but may be lost on the rest of the audience.
The character of Juan seems to be taken directly from the movie makers character handbook: dead beat dad, check. Womanizer, check. Unemployed, check. Possesses surprising weaponry skills, check. He is the character with the goofy and likable best friend, the one who you want to see survive but in the end are ok with the probability of his death. Most characters were so one-dimensional until the very last minutes of the film that it was difficult to cheer for any of them. The only character we really get any back story on is Juan, the rest have been left up to our imaginations. In fact the only character that seemed the most interesting was China (Jazz Vilá), the effeminate and flamboyant sling-shot-equipped token gay character. The muscle-man character who faints at the sight of blood could have easily died off sooner and would still had the same impact on the story.The gang of six who travel around Havana doing away with the undead are individually underdeveloped, but as a whole we are able to piece small bits of depth together. Alas, it was just not enough to make any of them very interesting.
Some of the kills are quite unique and none will be spoiled here: suffice it to say the outdoor parking lot scene was the most impressive and got the most cheers. However, most of the kills are generated off screen or just far enough out of view to leave it up to our imaginations. With the exception of one rather uncomfortable kill, the gore is tame and the cheap pale red blood is nowhere near what audiences have come to expect of this type of film. For a low-budget film from Cuba the special effects are mostly well done and the grimy locations act well in showing us the less glamorous, non-tourist side of the island. The film definitely has more laughs than thrills, in fact Juan of the Dead comes off entirely as a comedy, with little to no shocks nor scary scenes. It seems as though the horror-comedy sub-genre has done away with the frights all together, opting for cheap laughs and inside jokes. There is a fair share of both in this film, however the obvious references to the Cuban revolution and the commentary on the transit system, capitalism and socialism get old by the end of the film. It is clear that director Alexander Brugués has something to say, and while film has always been an outlet for artistic and political expression, Juan of the Dead only portrays those thoughts superficially. Additionally, perhaps it is the subtitle translation where the full effect of those jokes are lost. Sadly, the subtitles are chalk full of spelling and grammatical errors.
Juan of the Dead doesn’t reinvent the horror-comedy, nor does it add a fresh new take on the sub-genre. In fact, as far as horror-comedy goes, Juan of the Dead is about as uninspired and unoriginal as they come. A good horror-comedy must find the balance between making your audience laugh and making them squirm, and not just grossing them out. This film takes the comedy aspect and runs with it, not providing enough scares to be considered anywhere near horror. There may have been a time when monsters, zombies and vampires were genre specific, but in the last 10 years we have seen that this just isn’t the case anymore. To call this movie a horror-comedy is misleading, more appropriately, Juan is simply a comedy with Cuba and zombies as the socio-political punchline.
- Nick Watson
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