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The self-referentiality of zombie apocalypse cinema has reached the point when films are as likely to be influenced by Shaun Of The Dead as by Dawn Of The Dead, and every territory feels a burning need to have a living dead plague to call its own. Juan De Los Muertos, a Spanish-Cuban co-production, is billed as Cuba’s first horror film, though it’s a fond satire on gory movies in the manner of Peter Jackson’s early, funny films rather than an all-out splat-and-suspensefest. As with Shaun, background rules lifted from George Romero’s films are transplanted into a fresh social/political/national context. Gags which might have Cubans howling in recognition will whoosh over the heads of everyone else, though it’s easy to pick up the gist. When the monsters first attack, the official news channels blame the USA for fomenting dissent and there’s a very broadly played nudge-nudge bit about Cuba’s (coyly unnamed) most famous member of the living dead.
Slacker best buddies Juan (Alexis Díaz de Villegas) and Lazaro (Jorge Molina) grumble about the ossified institutions of Castro’s 50 year-old Socialist regime, yet aren’t exactly keen on the wealthy American or Spanish tourists they make a living filching from. At first, this pair come on like subtitled versions of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, down to the failed outside relationships — Juan is trying to patch things up with his estranged daughter, Camila (Andrea Duro) — and band of expendable, eccentric, zombie-fighting hangers-on. However, as the film takes more and more extreme turns, the characters become more distinctive, with a harder edge (a streak of Cuban homophobia isn’t terribly attractive). Ultimately, for every Cubano Juan discovers, there’s a core of patriotism which makes an endgame scored to Sid Vicious’ My Way surprisingly moving.
It has spectacular, if overly-CGId cynical gags — a zombie-head-strimming stunt staged in Havana’s Revolution Square, Juan’s pals leaving an old man in a horde of hungry creatures so they can use his wheelchair to carry looted cases of beer — and self-aware geeky chatter about the distinction between fast and slow zombies, but aside from some eerie underwater crowd scenes, the film doesn’t have time to make its monsters scary or threatening.
If it’s not too late in the day for yet another zombie movie, this has enough small pleasures — especially in the lead characterisations — to make it a worthwhile watch for a) Cuban exiles and b) long-term zombie completists. Others may be slightly bewildered.— Kim Newman, Empire Online
Thu February 7, 2013, 7:30 only, VAC Basement Auditorium (1B20)
Cuba, 2011, in Spanish w/ English subtitles, Color, 92 min, 35mm, 1.85:1, Not Rated • official site