A scene from Juan of the DeadThe zombie is a universal monster. It knows no color or creed, reanimating and attacking everyone equally. So, regardless of the explanation, there’s no reason the affliction shouldn’t cross to the island paradise of Cuba and turn it into a bloody playground.

Juan (Alexis Díaz de Villegas) and his best friend Lazaro (Jorge Molina) are part-time thieves, full-time ne’er-do-wells. They, along with Lazaro’s son, California (Andros Perugorría), hustle tourists and enjoy a life of leisure. Then, at a town meeting, a man begins attacking people. Soon the city is engulfed in chaos. After some trial and error with a neighbour, the trio discovers how to stop the horde. Always looking for an angle to exploit, Juan decides to start a business exterminating the undead – “Juan of the dead, we kill your beloved, how can I help you?” His estranged daughter (Blanca Rosa Blanco) is not impressed.

For a country that has never produced a zombie picture before, Juan of the Dead is one of the best entries into the category. Director Alejandro Brugués is well-versed in the genre, displaying a passion and knowledge through his characters and story that is both notable and endearing. In addition, he incorporates a cultural flavour that gives the narrative new life. The defensive dance with a zombie is just one of many examples.

However, it’s not until the film’s last act that someone finally refers to the monsters as zombies. The news reports say they are dissidents paid by the U.S. government to disrupt society. This becomes the accepted explanation once vampires and possession is ruled out. Going against convention, the creatures’ speed vary – some are fast, while others are slow. One of the best moments has Juan asking his rag-tag group why this is so: “I was hoping someone could clarify that for me,” he mumbles when no one answers the obvious tongue-in-cheek open question to the genre. There are also clear parallels to Shaun of the Dead, particularly in the beginning, and homages to a number of other films within and outside the genre.

Brugués noted that many of the incidents in the film were based on real-life experiences – he just added zombies. There are discussions of socialism versus capitalism, and references to needing to be a survivor to live in Cuba. The zombie genre has a rich history in social commentary and Brugués employs it here to explore life in Cuba.

During the credits, there is some brilliant comic book art illustrating some additional moments in the narrative. Hopefully everything works out and the film’s release will be paired with the launch of the graphic novel, which will include scenes not included in the movie.

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