A group of slackers face an army of zombies, as the Cuban government and media claim the living dead are dissidents revolting against the government. They decide the best way to deal with the situation is to start a business helping civilians kill their infected loved ones.
Instead of being a zombie film set in Cuba, Juan of the Dead succeeds by being a film about Cuba with zombies in it. The zombie movie tropes are incorporated and contextualized to make a social commentary about Cuba. I’m all for exploitation films having societal themes and it’s been a while since we have seen a zombie film done this way. It’s not new but yet it feels fresh.
In an American or British film where I would be more familiar with the culture, the characters choosing to profit off of the zombie outbreak by starting a “clean-up” business to kill infected relatives would make them very unlikable. As a viewer who’s foreign to Cuba and its political context, this cultural gap created a foreign gaze which allowed me to look inside Cuba’s struggles and the living conditions. That made it easier to go along with these misfits because it interested me more experiencing their view of life within the Cuban context. That makes for the most engaging parts of Juan of the Dead.
The zombie action set pieces and black comedy gags serve the story well. It hits the mark by being so violent it’s hilarious. Two sequences, one underwater sequence and another featuring a pick-up truck with a harpoon gun, both felt really creative. Havana is realistically incorporated into the action as well.
We get the sense our heroes are not intentionally slackers by choice but more a group of people that couldn’t find a place in a neglecting society and trying to do what they can to survive. I liked this band of misfits and it was entertaining watching them assembling into a team. Their first team outing had me laughing. As a fellow student of martial arts, any protagonist that fights with a pair of nunchukus is alright in my book.