Cuban zombies in Juan de los Muertos feast at the Vancouver Latin American Film Festival
The best zombie films work as social commentary, from George A. Romero’s shuffling conformists in the original Dawn of the Dead to the rabid saps deprived of Medicare in Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever. The movie Juan de los Muertos—which opens the 10th Vancouver Latin American Film Festival in fabulously nasty fashion on Friday (August 31)—presents yet another trenchant allegory, this time with a distinctly (not to mention groundbreaking) Cuban flavour amid all the flying limbs, gut-munching, and grue.
“They are a society that just accepts things as they come,” says writer-director Alejandro Brugués, of the living dead who infest Havana in his crowd-pleasing zom-com. “They are not interested to change things; they just keep on with their lives like nothing happened.”
The 36-year-old filmmaker seems reluctant to elaborate much further on the matter during a call to the Straight from Havana, perhaps because his complacent flesh-eaters are wedged so entertainingly into a wider critique of the island nation’s half-century of communism. Perhaps a little surprisingly, Juan de los Muertos has drawn no fire from Cuba’s government, even with the rather pointed destruction of a Revolución o Muerte billboard at one point in the film by a zombie-hijacked bus. Why offer any more bait?
“I don’t know if there’s been an official reaction. I don’t think they care much about the film,” says Brugués with a chuckle (and probably a little relief), adding that “everybody asks that question.” Equally, the film has its shades of grey (and crimson), so much so that Juan de los Muertos achieved a kind of détente by taking the audience award at both the Havana and Miami film festivals, as Brugués proudly notes. “So I have all the Cuban parts covered!” he laughs.
Indeed, while it hilariously lampoons state media on the one hand—newsreaders insist with increasing panic throughout the film that the zombies are “dissidents” who are somehow sponsored by the U.S.—Juan de los Muertos also operates as a bittersweet love letter to the indefatigable nature of Cuba itself.
“I am a survivor,” states Juan (the shaggy Alexis Díaz de Villegas), in an early scene. “I survived Mariel. I survived Angola. I survived the Special Period, and that thing that came later. And I’m going to survive this.” Drenched in blood, he repeats the speech later in the film, but only after being roused by Cuba’s newest battle from some 40 years of petty criminality, poor fathering, and his own social and moral malaise.
In the interim, Juan sees the opportunity to make some cash by ridding the city of its unwanted dead with a crew that includes a transvestite hooker, a blindfolded man-mountain (he faints at the sight of blood), and his even more ethically impaired best friend, Lazaro (played by the edgy Cuban director Jorge Molina).
Beyond the sun-bleached Caribbean flavour of the film and its wicked salsa-infused soundtrack, Juan de los Muertos offers a fresh take on a worked-over genre for a few other reasons. An entirely cavalier attitude to a little opportunistic murder here and there is one such transgression. In fact, it’s amusing to Brugués that some people are less bothered by the film’s maximum gore than by the native and honestly observed attitudes and sense of fatalism driving Juan and his poverty-stricken cohorts.
“I can sacrifice some haters. I can afford to do that,” he reasons. “I was just trying to write characters that felt like real-life, human characters. I’ve had critics or the audience complain that the film is homophobic. The film’s not homophobic. You’re talking about a couple of characters that grew up here that were born in the ’60s, and grew up in the ’60s and ’70s in a really homophobic society. It’s not like that anymore, but that’s how they were raised. So that’s how they would react in real life.”
The more sophisticated gorehound needs no such explanation. Like its director, who cheerfully admits that his education in hard-to-find genre films was massively aided by a pirate—“A film pirate! Not the fun pirate,” he thoughtfully clarifies—Juan de los Muertos speaks plainly about life in a country that presents itself one way to tourists and another way to itself, something it achieves along with perhaps the most amazing mass-decapitation set piece you’ve ever seen, and a lot more besides. Says Brugués: “If you come see Juan, there’s going to be politically incorrect humour, it’s going to go a bit too far, but you’re going to laugh a lot.”
Sounds like the perfect festival film, actually.
Vancouver Latin American Film Festival presents Juan de los Muertos on Friday (August 31) at 7 p.m.
Watch the trailer for Juan de los Muertos.