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kilowog [Film Festival 06.27.12] Spain zombies horror comedy

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It would be easy to think that the ‘zombie genre’ is played out, but then you encounter a film like Alejandro Brugues’ JUAN OF THE DEAD and you’re proved dead wrong. While it doesn’t reinvent the seminal horror genre, Brugues manages to bring to the table enough elements of originality and humor along with a very well-intentioned sense of political responsibility to satisfy the viewer. Put together on a shoestring budget, this Cuban original with it’s origins taken into context, creates a unique and deeply admirable effort that one only hopes will begat other opportunities for the exiled filmmaker.

Juan (Alexis Diaz de Villegas) is a scoundrel of the first kind. He has a daughter, Camila (Andrea Duro) who hates him, and a close friend, Lazaro (Jorge Molina) who only encourages the bad behavior that alienates his offspring -- drinking, debauchery, and one get-rich-quick scheme after another. It’s when Juan’s broken Cuban community is overrun by zombies that he finally begins to understand what it takes to maintain friendship and a strong family base. Teaming up with the dumpy Lazaro, his son, California, transvestite El China and El Primo (think Dwayne Johnson) the quintet go into business GHOSTBUSTERS-style by offering to kill your undead “beloved” for a fee.

The jokes come fast and often, usually erring on the side of penis, masturbation and other sexual humor. Though growing tiresome at times, it’s the injection of political musings that give the film a heart and a message. Repeating throughout the horror comedy are a series of government run news broadcasts wherein an uptight anchor asserts that all is well in the island nation, and that any issues within the community are to be blamed on the United States. It is through this that our group of wannabe mercenaries never actually uses the word “zombie” until late into the film, preferring to trust elements of the broadcast and instead adopt the term “dissident” as they have been instructed to do so.

Never pretending to be smart, Juan is a man who has made one mistake after another in his life, and all that he has left is the love for his daughter and his country. He is determined to win them both back, but as the number of remaining humans dwindle he is forced to finally become the man and father he should have been from the start.

You’ll never look at JUAN and admire its use of special effects, which as over the top as they are cheap. The squirting blood would have been more realistic if they had used Heinz ketchup. However, taking into account just what Brugues had to do to get this film made, it’s easy to put all this aside, and admire the movie for what it is -- a creative triumph. While the name JUAN OF THE DEAD cannot help but evoke comparisons to the Edgar Wright film, SHAUN OF THE DEAD, it would be wrong to treat JUAN as a simple knock-off. While Wright brought an immense level of heart and camaraderie to his film, Brugues brings a level of intelligence and whimsy to his.

Though he leaves us with an unrealistic and somewhat staid ending to Juan’s story, Brugues makes us enjoy the ride to get there and for that we are appreciative.

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