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Juan of the Dead

by on August 12, 2012
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Despite the satirical title, “Juan of the Dead” is much more than just a Spanish-language version of “Shaun of the Dead.” It’s a distinctly Cuban film that puts a refreshing spin on the zombie genre. In fact, it would appear that the ante has officially been upped on Simon Pegg’s reign as comedic zombie king.

Juan is a native Cuban who is not the most likely of heroes. Actually, his fairly deviant lifestyle has forced his only daughter to cut ties with him, leaving Juan to his own devices — the likes of which include sleeping with married women, spying on people with his telescope and drinking copious amounts of rum atop the roof of his apartment building. Close at hand is Juan’s best friend/sidekick, Lazaro, who follows loyally in tow, and both live very vagabond lives.

Upon dealing with the initial onslaught of zombies, the duo, alongside with a ragtag group of misfit friends, forms an amateurish zombie-killing team. The team consists of a 300-plus pound behemoth of a man who faints at the sight of blood; his cross-dressing sidekick, China; Juan’s estranged daughter, Camila; and Lazaro’s dopey yet useful son, Vladi. Looking for a quick buck wherever they can find it, Juan and Lazaro lead the mercenary group for hire on several tactical operations — all the while bringing Juan closer to his daughter and leading Juan to discover the devout Cuban inside himself.

Taking the basic concept behind “Shaun” and heightening it tenfold, “Juan” doubles as both a political commentary and a blood-soaked zombie flick. Set against the backdrop of a politically charged present-day Havana, the film is proudly Cuban and yet heavily satirical in a self-referential fashion. In the film, the media portrays the zombies as a rogue group of “dissidents” hellbent on destroying the delicate cultural fabric of Cuba. Despite the slew of metaphors made between Cubans and zombies under a communist reign, the film manages to not be weighed down by its political leanings. In fact, it’s refreshing to see a film such as this take aim at its source nation’s own cultural heritage in a way both funny and boldly unique.

The social commentary is also what sets “Juan of the Dead” apart from its comedic zombie counterparts. It’s the perfect combination of George Romero’s original vision for his “Dead” series paired with the slapstick nature of Pegg and Edgar Wright’s “Shaun of the Dead.” For a low-budget zombie flick shot on location, “Juan” has a very large-budget feel. Set in the meager yet picturesque streets of Havana and against the beautiful Caribbean Ocean, the film is a vibrant pairing of gorgeous visuals stained in blood-splatter. “Juan” also exists to tell the tale of the underdog, as Juan is certainly not a reprehensible human being but definitely an unexpected hero.

“Juan” parallels “Shaun” in many ways, most notably in its universal appeal to the common man. We all have deviant urges, the likes of which are vicariously executed by zombie-killing average Joes. It’s in this vein that zombie films make their greatest impact, creating a world in which decapitating your painfully annoying downstairs neighbor can be a valid reality. Of course, the walking-dead subgenre is rife with imitators, but believe you me, “Juan of the Dead” is the real deal — a hilariously irreverent romp through the bloodstained streets of a zombie-riddled Havana. What more is there to want out of a schlock classic?

Being theatrically released in small markets late last year, the DVD/Blu-ray release is officially scheduled to hit stateside August 14. With that in mind, and in anticipation of its release, I dub thee an instant Schlock Vault classic.