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Feature Juan of the Dead

Cuba's first independent film since Castro came to power had its UK premiere in Leeds last month as part of Leeds International Film Festival. We caught up with director Alejandro Brugu├ęs and watched his excellent Cuban zombie comedy

Feature: Juan of the Dead

"50 years after the triumph of the revolution, a new revolution is about to begin…the zombie revolution!" This is the tagline for Cuban zombie comedy Juan of the Dead, which premiered at Leeds City Varieties as part of Leeds International Film Festival. This film is significant because it is the first independent movie to come from Cuba since Castro came to power in 1956, and director Alejandro Brugués makes the most of his opportunity.

In the midst of the new revolution – a zombie outbreak in Havana – 42 year-old slacker Juan and his friends discover that they can make a tidy profit by killing people’s infected relatives for them, leading to a catchy slogan for this opportunistic enterprise: “Juan of the dead, we kill your beloved ones”. As well as defending Cubans from the plague of brain-hungry wandering undead, Juan is determined to regain the love of his daughter Camila, while keeping his buddy’s son California out of her knickers. Telling her “Watch out for him, he’s got herpes” certainly helps for a while.

In a Q&A after the premiere Brugués tells us that a film of this scale has never been made before in Cuba, “This is like 10 Cuban films!” Most of the money for the movie came from Spain and enabled the director to up the scale of his vision. Three to five hundred extras plus many more created with CGI featured in the production, and it seems that old zombies do it best: “We had a zombie school to teach people how to move but the old people did it best, so we had lots of old people being zombies, though I’m not so sure they knew what they were doing.”

There are some stunning zombie scenes which are sometimes frightening, sometimes hilarious. At one point Juan and his followers are surrounded by hoards of zombies and uttering that at least it can’t get any worse, the lights die and they’re plunged into pitch darkness.

Later, on a Havana rooftop Juan has to salsa himself away from the newly turned zombie that’s handcuffed to his wrist. Despite the absurdity of these scenarios Brugués tells us that most of the events in the film are taken from everyday Cuban life, with added zombies, obvz! He is a huge fan of the zombie genre and a few tips of the cap are made in the direction of undead classics, but there were other reasons to make this kind of movie: “making a zombie film was my way to say some things about Cuba that I couldn’t have got away with if it hadn’t been a zombie film.”

Juan of the Dead is allegorical and satirical and this is evident in various elements of the film. Juan and his crew find a way to profit from the zombie ‘revolution’ and digs at Castro and Communism are made throughout. The news blames zombie attacks on anarchist dissidents and the USA and when Juan’s team is met by the authorities and you expect them to offer help and protection, they strip them naked and chain them up. Corruption and inequality are cleverly conveyed in this movie, though the audience is not choked with whinging complaints. Brugués is simply reflecting on the reality that he sees in his country. “It’s a kind of documentary”, he tells us, only half-jokingly.

Despite the evident political content the director tells us not to read too much into the movie. “People say ‘This is a metaphor for…’ – no, this is a zombie film!” It certainly is and it‘s a blood sprayed laugh out loud comedy, a buddy story and a tale of love and survival.

Juan of the Dead opens in Cuba any time now, so it will be interesting to see what reception it gets. From the people on the streets it is sure to be joyous and let’s hope that we see some more independent movies from this Caribbean island, now that the curtain of censorship seems to be lifting. A cinematic revolution could have begun, and we are sure there are more stories to tell.

Juan of the Dead was shown at Leeds City Varieties as part of Leeds International Film Festival, www.leedsfilm.com. It won the Fanomenon Audience Award at the festival.

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Posted on Thursday 24th November 2011
Sam JT Butterworth

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