Standout cinema doesn’t come easy at Fantastic Fest. With so much excellent cinema vying for your attention, plenty are going to get lost in the mix that is your cerebrum. That’s just the way it is. The quality problem that lies at the heart of the Alamo Drafthouse’s loosely-themed genre celebration/week of debauchery, Fantastic Fest, is that there are nothing but good films. Having attended dozens of film festivals, and recently having had my own, I can not emphasize how much of a quandary this puts the average cinephile when contemplating post-festival discussion. At other festivals, this DOES NOT HAPPEN. Ever. At the end of the week, with 25-30 films under your belt, all of them outstanding, which do you get behind? Which do you share without submitting your friends to an eight-hour pitch-fest while they look at you blank-eyed and nodding? Easy. You pick the nearest and dearest and preach away.
Since October I’ve been singing the praises of Juan of the Dead. Having spent the past few weeks swimming in the sea that is Miami’s Cuban community, I can tell you that each conversation followed as such:
“Hey, I’m Roman.”
“Hey, I’m _____.”
“Nice to meet you. Have you ever seen Juan of the Dead?”
Okay, it may have been a little more subtle and less stilted, but I craved the discussion. Especially with this community, a community so sensitive that the sheer mention of Fidel Castro in an ambiguously positive light had sent the masses asking for the head of Miami Marlin’s Manager, Ozzie Guillen, just a while ago.
Like many other zombie films before it, this film takes the human experience and filters the social commentary through the black eyes of the undead. That much is par for the course. What is new here is that this is not the politics and social structure we know. This in an exotic political landscape with what would basically be considered mandatory neighborhood watch meetings in our neck of the woods, lest you be considered a dissident. Which, in the film, is probably why the government starts labeling the zombies as dissidents.
I don’t want to get too tied up into this since I 1.) do not know enough about it to speak intelligently, and 2.) it takes away from the more useful discussion of how much FUN this movie is. The kills come out of left field and the characters are immensely lovable. In the entirety of the festival this is the only movie to get applause through the entirety of its closing credit sequence. I applauded right along with them, our sides still hurting from the laughter.
Despite all my discussion about politics and social commentary, the beauty of the film really does lie in the simplicity of its plot. The film centers around Juan, a local hustler/entrepreneur that lives from one money-making scheme to the next with his best friend Lazaro. When the zombie apocalypse comes down, what else is a business man to do? Juan, Lazaro and friends make money being the exterminators of the undead. If you have a loved-one that isn’t content with life ending at the final heartbeat, give Juan a call. They’ll kill them for you. Take a peek at the trailer:
The only gripe that I have heard from film fans about the movie (film fans that have not actually seen the movie, mind you) is regarding the title: Juan of the Dead. The whole thing is too close to Shaun of the Dead, which itself is a play on Dawn of the Dead. I have heard more than once that they felt that the filmmakers were trying to ride on the popularity of the Shaun of the Dead title. Rather than throw my own explanations I decided to reach out to the director, Alejandro Brugués, to get his own explanation.
Yeah, the title does sound like Shaun, hehe. You know, when I had the idea, it was a simple joke. I saw someone that looked like a zombie and told my producer, ‘We can use people like this here to make a zombie film and we wouldn’t even need make up and we can call it Juan of the Dead.’ It went out like that, and after that I never questioned the titled (until much further down the road, when some people did).
I based the character of Juan on my brother, Juan, and there are more than five scenes in the film directly taken from my brother’s life. So yes, it’s an homage to Shaun, and I strongly believe it would be healthier for every country to have a ‘…of the Dead‘ (I’ve been hearing Sven of the Dead will kick ass). Shaun is a movie I deeply love and respect, and I think both films play in the same field, but mine is definitely something different.”
This movie easily gets 4 out of 5 Nerdskulls. So, there you go. No excuses. See Juan of the Dead if it plays in your local cineplex or VOD of choice. If you’re in Austin, you can still catch it at the Alamo Drafthouse Village. Wherever you see it, it will be time and money well spent. If you don’t, we’ll just have to label you a dissident and call Juan.