Review: 'Juan Of The Dead' is much more than an easy Cuban zombie knock-off
Just so we're clear on this, I want a distributor to buy "Juan Of The Dead." Now. Immediately.
This has been my busiest festival year so far. I was at Sundance, SXSW, Cannes, Toronto, and now Fantastic Fest, and part of the game you play when you attend all of these events is figuring out what you need to see now and what you can see later. Even now, I'm counting on AFI Fest in November to pick up some titles I've missed at other festivals, and even within a festival, I find myself trying to shuffle things around to fit in the most films possible.
One of the films that I had a chance to see in Toronto but missed was "Juan Of The Dead." I did end up meeting writer/director Alejandro Brugues in a hotel lobby for a few minutes, and I promised him there that I'd see the film during Fantastic Fest. I missed the first screening here in Austin, and I missed Sunday night's press screening. So when the Monday morning 11:15 AM screening rolled around, I was in my seat as early as possible. Good thing, too, because word of mouth has been building on the film over the course of the festival, and it was totally packed.
Before the film began, Brugues came out to speak for a few moments, and he seemed nervous. Little wonder. He's still got to go home to Cuba and show his film to the government, something that is an important step in the life of any film made in that country. I'm worried that the movie we saw this morning will never get screened again in that form, and that would be a shame, because Brugues has a genuine voice, and more than that, he's got a knack for pop entertainment with a beating heart.
Alexis Diaz de Villegas stars as Juan, a guy who has lived his whole life in Havana, and who is reaching a place in his life where he's starting to really grapple with regret. He's got an adult daughter he doesn't get to see, he's got an ex-wife who he's happy not to see, and he's got family that has already left Cuba permanently. He's happy not to leave, though. He knows that if he ever went to Miami, he'd have to get a real job and have a real life, and he'd rather just get along the way he always has. When zombies begin to show up in and around Havana, though, Juan and his friends start rethinking their attitudes, and some big decisions have to be made about how to move forward. For a while, Juan sees his knack for violence against the undead as a way to make some money. He's starting to consider his options for the first time, considering the wider world for the first time, and there is something genuine and touching about the character and the way the film depicts his awakening.
And then on top of that, yes, it's a very fun zombie film. Brugues has a real feel for how to put together a gag or an image, and the film has several striking moments of imagination, including one reference to Fulci's "Zombie" which made me applaud. He knows his genre films, but he's not just looking to play "Hey, guess what movie I've seen." Because this film comes from a sincere place, and because the characters were drawn directly from his experience, there's something very real about the film that grounds some of the more outrageous jokes. I was surprised by the scale that the film occasionally reaches, and by how well Brugues pulls that off.
I want this film to get distribution first because it's an enjoyable film, but second because I want to see more films from Cuba. I know all the arguments for the continued cultural embargo, but I also think it's time we get to know what sort of movies Cuba makes and how they see themselves onscreen and how filmmakers have dealt with 50 years of oppressive censorship that has affected every single film made in that time. I want to see if there are more young filmmakers starting to find their voice right now, and I want to see if there's a market for Cuban films here in America. I bet the curiosity is huge, and a smart distributor could play right to an underserved Latin-speaking market that is hungry to be spoken to directly.
If you're a distributor of genre fare and you haven't seen "Juan Of The Dead" yet, don't be put off by the very-close-to-too-cute title, and don't make the mistake of thinking this is going to be cheap or unpolished. This is a real movie, and Brugues is a real movie maker. I hope this is the first time we hear his name, not the last, and that Cuba embraces him as the cultural ambassador he is.