No wonder they lumber and moan. Zombies are the hardest-working ghouls in cinema, walking hunks of rotting flesh forced, like shambling Atlases, to shoulder metaphors both fascinating and overwrought. They've been the vessels for symbolism ever since George Romero used them (inadvertently) to criticize rural racism back in 1968, and have since served to speak on everything from consumerism to the drudgery of mindless work, even in titty bars.
So it makes sense that Cuba's first horror film (that isn't a documentary, at least) is the zed-head comedy Juan of the Dead—this is, after all, a country with a built-in fear of invasion from the outside, so what better way to communicate those fears than an invasion from the inside, with the government circumventing the crisis by blaming it on political revolution? The film centers on its titular hero (Alexis Díaz de Villegas) and his oafish buddy Lazaro (Jorge Molina), two well-intentioned con men who find themselves adept at zombie-slaying early on and get enterprising with a business wherein they, along with their estranged children, a slingshot-wielding transgendered hooker, and a pimp with a Mike Tyson-esque facial tattoo, eradicate the undead from people's property for a reasonable price. Business, of course, is booming.
Like in any movie of the genre, Juan's best qualities are its zombie gags, which range from a terrifically gross multi-decapitation joyride and a killer harpoon scene to a well-meaning (if shoddy) underwater homage to Lucio Fulci. But where it loses its footing is in its characters. In more controlled horror comedies (like Juan's closest cousin, Shaun of the Dead), there's a bit of room for the characters' motivations to be fleshed out amid the darkness, as even the biggest goofball is forced to confront moral quandaries amid the bloodshed. With Juan, director Alejandro Brugués expects us to follow the characters without questioning them, giving the film a chest-beating sense of righteousness amid the slapstick carnage. Maybe that's the point. After all, this is—as all films in this genre tend to be—a reflection of the society in which it was made, here showing how the Cuban everyman might react to undead Armageddon. The problem is, its characters are presented as inherently lovable, but they are actually just as menacing as the monsters they fight. There's a lot of fun to be had here, but when the heads stop rolling and we're asked to care, well, the film only becomes symbolic of lazy writing.
SEE IT: Juan of the Dead opens Friday at the Hollywood Theatre.