Written and directed by Alejandro Brugués, 2011's Juan Of The Dead introduces us to a petty criminal named, not surprisingly, Juan (Alexis Díaz de Villegas) who does what he can to survive in Havana. He hopes to put his criminal past behind him so that he can reunite with his daughter, Camila (Andrea Duro), but old habits die hard and he's not having the best of luck turning over a new life. His best friend, Lazaro (Jorge Molina), isn't much help - he'd rather hang out on the streets and make cat calls at the pretty ladies who walk past.
Of course, this being quite obviously a zombie movie, all of this changes when a plague hits the city and turns people into hordes of shambling corpses. Mass panic ensues and the vast majority of the people who live in Havana head for the hills, but Juan and Lazaro? They see an opportunity here. Rather than take off like so many others, they stick around and offer, for a fee of course, to do away with anyone's undead relative. As it would be not only emotionally difficult to chop off your zombie mom's head but also dangerous, they soon find they're filling a need and business takes off. Juan's daughter is along to help them out, Lazaro's too, in addition to a transvestite and her boyfriend, all of which makes for an unlikely group of heroes...
As much a politically charged satire as it is a traditional zombie movie (at one point the Cuban government tells the populace that the zombie outbreak is the result of American meddling) set against a backdrop (Havana, obviously) that is simultaneously beautiful and tragic. The city has got loads of natural beauty to show off but has also seen considerably better days, as we see how dire some of the locations really are as the movie plays out. It makes for an interesting visual contrast one that was, no doubt, intentional on the part of the filmmakers. It also makes for a location where the zombies almost fit in better than the living - their shambling, dead bodies look almost like they belong alongside the decaying buildings and rundown neighborhoods where the impoverished citizens of the communist regime live out their lives.
Front and center in all of this is Alexis Díaz de Villegas as Juan, and so much of the movie hinges on his performance that it'll likely be a 'make it or break it' criteria for a lot of viewers. His take on the character is one played often for laughs and the comedy often times comes in the form of some pretty ridiculous slapstick. His back and forth with Molina as Lazaro as often times very funny and a lot of the stereotypes you get in horror movies are played to the extreme here, but de Villegas gets more to do here than the supporting players and it's to his credit that he actually manages to pull this off. The rest of the cast do fine as well, but you can't really get around the fact that de Villegas does most of the heavy lifting in the film.
As far as the overall production values in the film are concerned, while Juan Of The Dead appears to have been made on a modest budget, the zombie make up effects come through well. There are some impressively gory moments scattered throughout the film and a few 'creative kill' scenes that are definitely stand out moments. It's all handled with a comedic style but that doesn't take away from the fact that at times the movie is pretty gory. Some goofy CGI stands out, but more often than not his side of the production is handled right.
Though there will be obvious and somewhat unavoidable comparisons made between this film and the earlier Shaun Of The Dead, Brugués' picture manages to cut its own path. It's not a super original piece of work by any stretch, but it has a cultural spin all its own and enough quirky characters and gruesome gore to keep things interesting and amusing. If it's not a brand new classic, it's still a movie worth checking out simply because, despite owing something to what came before it, the film manages to do something a little bit different with the increasingly played out zombie genre.
Juan Of The Dead arrives on DVD in a good 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The movie is a dark one, lots of scenes take place at night or inside without much light and the film makes use of a fairly brown and grey heavy palette but the transfer handles it well. Colors are reproduced fairly well and skin tones look nice and natural. Shadow detail isn't always excellent but it is pretty consistently good and there are no issues with compression artifacts or edge enhancement. All in all, the movie looks fine.
The Spanish language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound track on the disc is also pretty good, if not reference quality. The dialogue is clear enough that it comes through nicely while the score and effects are mixed in at the right levels so as not to bury anything in the mix. There are no alternate language options but there are removable English subtitles provided.
Unfortunately, we don't get much in the way of extra features here - there's a very short behind the scenes featurette that offers only a superficial look at the making of the move, and there are a few deleted scenes that come with input from the director explaining things a little bit. Aside from that, we get a few trailers and the standard menus and chapter stops you'd expect to see.
Juan Of The Dead isn't particularly rich in character development or deep in plot but it's an amusing enough take on a genre quickly becoming played out and tired, and for that it deserves some credit. If the movie doesn't reinvent the wheel, it offers up some good laughs, a few solid gore effects and some decent atmosphere with a unique cultural twist. The DVD from eOne is light on extras but looks and sounds about as good as you'd hope it would and it comes recommended for zombie fans.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.