From "Walking Dead," to countless horror films, to even real-life encounters in South Beach, zombies are everywhere – even in Cuba.
"Juan de los Muertos" (Juan of the Dead) (2011), is Cuba’s first foray into the horror film genre. To be precise, it is more a zombie-comedy (“zom-com”) and satire piece than a standard horror flick, and therein lies its brilliance.
Focus Features has picked up the rights to the film and will reportedly distribute it in the U.S. via DVD, On Demand, and iTunes on August 14.
Throughout its screenings at worldwide festivals (including two at Cannes), critics have bestowed heaps of praise and awards upon "Juan de los Muertos" – perfectly acted, remarkably-shot (considering the low budget, its cinematography and special effects are particularly impressive), and with a hilarious, authentic, original screenplay – it is a must-see.
Juan, a 40-year-old slacker, and his sidekick best friend, Lazaro, are ordinary Cubans just living day-to-day. While fishing, Lazaro muses he has no desire to escape to Miami – after all, there he’d have to actually work. Minutes later, zombies arise and the film takes off, culminating in Juan and his rag-tag neighborhood posse starting a zombie-disposal business.
But what’s most interesting about this joint Cuban-Spanish production (filmed in Havana starring a Cuban cast) is the subtle yet discernible criticism of the island’s regime.
First, when the zombie outbreak begins, the Cuban government’s television broadcast claims the zombies are dissidents or pawns paid off by the Americans. There is no mistaking the filmmakers’ mocking of the Castroite regime’s decades-long stance of ‘blaming all ills on the United States.’
Second, Lazaro is fairly certain the zombies cannot be dissidents because, well, the one zombie he knows was too much of a coward to be a dissident.
Third, in one particularly startling scene, Lazaro’s twenty-something, handsome son nicknamed “California,” states:
“I want to get the hell out of here and go around the world. If they ask me where I’m from, I’ll say ‘Cuba.’ If they ask me ‘What’s Cuba?,’ I’ll say ‘A socialist island in the Caribbean.’ If they ask me ‘What’s socialism?’, I’ll tell them ‘A system installed by Fidel Castro fifty years ago.’"
Additional eyebrow-raising moments include Juan, training his motley crew in zombie-killing, notes that, unlike the Yankees (Cuban slang for Americans), the zombies are a “real” enemy.
Another good one that's hard to miss is the powerful visual of a car crashing into a “Revolución o Muerte” sign, prompting the famous revolutionary slogan to come crashing down.
If you find yourself wondering how this film made it past the government’s staunch censors, you're not alone.
Did the film’s openly subversive theme fly right over a dimwitted official’s head? Or is Cuba finally beginning to allow its artists some freedom of expression? One cautiously hopes it is the latter.
After all, the one overriding achievement of "Juan de los Muertos" is reminding audiences of the Cuban people’s spirit, wit, and undeniable appeal – and that, regardless of anyone’s politics, is a resounding success.
For more information, visit http://www.juanofthedeadmovie.com/lang/en/
A. J. Delgado is a graduate of Harvard Law School who writes about conservative politics and pop culture. You may find her on Twitter at @missADelgado