'Juan of the Dead'

A great title, a novel setting and some surprisingly blunt digs at Castro's Cuban land of non-opportunity aren't enough to save "Juan of the Dead" from being a lowbrow zombie comedy that mostly goes where many others have gone before.

A great title, a novel setting and some surprisingly blunt digs at Castro’s Cuban land of non-opportunity aren’t enough to save “Juan of the Dead” from being a lowbrow zombie comedy that mostly goes where many others have gone before. Written and directed by Alejandro Brugues (“Personal Belongings”), this Spain-Cuba co-production scores a few laughs, but the weak script’s scant narrative drive and crude humor are best suited to the undiscriminating. Nonetheless, pic should pick up a fair number of offshore deals for various formats, with distribs in several territories signing or negotiating after its Toronto preem.

Fortysomething Havana slacker Juan (Alexis Dias de Villegas) is an amiable ne’er-do-well whose wife and child left him for greener pastures abroad long ago. He and perpetually horny dim-bulb friend Lazaro (Jorge Molina) scrape by through variably legal odd jobs including fishing; when they reel in a ravenous zombie, their curious response is no more than a shrugged “Let’s not tell anyone about this.”

It’s everyone’s business soon enough, though, as an undead epidemic begins decimating the city’s population shortly thereafter. In the screenplay’s most amusing stroke, government authorities and media immediately insist the marauders are merely “dissidents” bent on undermining the communist state at the behest of a certain evil empire just up north. Their sticking to that party line, no matter how dire things get, is an inspired running gag; subversive nods to Cuba’s perpetually broken-down infrastructure and make-do citizenry are also good for some chuckles.

Juan susses a rare private business opening to be seized in the general chaos, setting up himself, Lazaro and latter’s lanky son (Andros Perugorria) as a zombie cleanup crew with the motto “We kill your loved ones.” Pushing their way in as partners are shrill neighborhood tranny La China (Jazz Vila) and her pal El Primo (Eliecer Ramirez), a huge muscleman who faints at the site of blood. Also joining, albeit reluctantly, is Juan’s now-grown daughter, Camila (Andrea Duro), whose holiday to visit Grandma has been extended indefinitely by the crisis.

Fairly plotless hijinks ensue, with occasional good lines and one great little setpiece (a unique mass-zombie beheading) outweighed by homophobic and otherwise puerile jokes and routine splatstick. Obviously this isn’t Noel Coward, but Brugues could have aimed a little higher; there’s precious little wit, originality or cinematic style even attempted here, though the energy level remains decently high.

Perfs and packaging are adequate, with CGI effects ranging from competent to subpar.

Juan of the Dead

Spain-Cuba

Production

A La Zanfona Producciones and Producciones de la 5ta Avenida production. (International sales: Latinofusion, Jalisco, Mexico.) Produced by Gervasio Iglesias, Inti Herrera. Executive producers, Iglesias, Herrera, Claudia Calvino. Directed, written by Alejandro Brugues.

Crew

Camera (color), Carles Gusi; editor, Mercedes Cantero; music, Sergio Valdes; production designer, Derubin Jacome; costume designer, Esther Vaquero; sound, Daniel de Zayas; special effects supervisor, Juan Carlos Sanchez; visual effects supervisor, Juan Ventura; makeup effects, Cristian Perez Jauregui; assistant director, Olga Sanchez; casting, Libia Batista. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema), Sept. 14, 2011. Running time: 96 MIN.

With

Alexis Dias de Villegas, Jorge Molina, Andrea Duro, Andros Perugorria, Jazz Vila, Eliecer Ramirez.

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