Considering zombies are the walking dead, it’s surprising to see how popular they have become. They are mindless beasts that are incredibly uninteresting. Maybe that’s why they are perfect targets for horror comedies. Juan of the Dead is clearly a riff on the title of Edgar Wright’s horror comedy Shaun of the Dead, yet Juan manages to be creative enough to keep from feeling like a retread and instead makes a case why two films with similar titles and similar premises can exist in the same universe. Clocking in at 96 minutes, the film is perhaps a bit meandering at points but keeps the story moving forward with laugh after laugh and some of the best self-references throughout. A premise like a zombie takeover has to stand on the creativity of the universe that is created as a result, and that’s exactly where Juan succeeds.
Juan (Alexis Diaz de Villegas) and Lazaro (Jorge Molina) are best friends living (well, stuck) in Cuba. They are small time crooks that manage to keep their heads above water and have avoided the attention of the law. However, they dream of something better and a sudden zombie infestation is the perfect distraction that they oddly enough then turn into a business…A zombie killing business. From there things get more and more violent, creative and just plain funny with one-of-a kind Zombie kills and recurring gags but everything is done in the name of hilarity and parody. Case in point. As Juan and co learn the art and craft of Zombie killing, writer/director Alejandro Brugués pokes fun at the genre he’s playing. During a Zombie 101 lesson (about how to kill the zombies and what creates them), Juan asks his team of rag tag Zead commandos if anyone knows why some zombies are fast and some are slow. When he gets no response, he simply remarks that he wished someone had had the answer.
Creativity is a hallmark of Juan, and the zombie kills are a specialty showcasing Brugués’ care and attention to his story. Every kind of dismemberment occurs, but the key is to make it entertaining and funny. After all, this is a horror comedy. Ever see a zombie dance? You will. Then there is China (Jazz Vilá), a cross-dresser, who has his own bodyguard—a hulking mass he calls El Primo (Eliecer Ramírez). The only issue is that El Primo faints at the sight of blood. That becomes an issue in a zombie infested world. But China is resilient and discovers a clever way to get around this drawback and effectively utilize El Primo’s massive frame for destructive purposes. The film follows from the same group’s perspective which is both a blessing and a curse.
We get to see some of the character evolve throughout, as Juan becomes a hero figure. The curse is that while trying to develop a storyline, they sometimes stick with it for too long. Yet, again and again, something new seems to crop up that propels the group forward in a new and exciting way. Sight gags and slapstick are staples of this kind of film, but Juan manages to throw in a few well-timed jokes that hit like standup. Sure, some of the jokes will fly by if you aren’t quick enough to read the subtitles, but one towards the end between Lazaro and Juan is drawn out for a minute or two and will have you laughing long after the sequence ends. For a showing closing in on the midnight hour, it had the theater rolling.
Juan of the Dead has been making the rounds at film festivals around the country. In fact, it took me passing on it twice at two other film festivals in the last year to finally sit down and check it out. There’s a reason it has come back again and again, and that’s because the film is a great time. Sure, sometimes it runs out of steam, but the film never settles for too long and the laughs are plentiful and hardy. This is horror comedy done right, no matter the country of origin. Some of the main characters outside of Juan could have used a story arc of some kind, but watching this gaggle of fools navigate the zombie invasion is enough to keep any zombie fan content for over an hour and a half.