Juan (Alexis Diaz de Villegas) sits on a ramshackle raft in the middle of the ocean with his best pal Lazaro (Jorge Molina). For these workshy fops, it is the latest attempt at making money while doing as little as possible.

Juan gets a bite on his rod and begins to reel it in. At first they believe the huge catch to be a dead body … until it springs into life and is only stopped when Lazaro harpoons it through the face. The friends agree to keep this little adventure to themselves.

Back on land in their home country of Cuba, Juan and Lazaro go about their everyday business. For Juan, this involves sleeping with married women, helping out elderly neighbour Yiya (Elsa Camp) whose husband has been immobile for 15 years, and spying on the neighbourhood through Lazaro’s telescope on the roof of their apartment block.

A public meeting in their town is the first indication that all is not well. The locals recoil as a respected figure of the community attacks them, baying for their flesh. A short while later, a TV newscaster addresses the people and claims riots are being reported all over Cuba. They have, the report concludes, an epidemic of "dissidents" on their hands.

Juan and his mates, including Lazaro’s unscrupulous son California (Andros Perugorria) and a transvestite called China (Jazz Vila), don’t believe the violent outbreaks are attributable to US turncoats: at first they think they’re up against vampires. But when garlic and stakes don’t work, they go through the motions of disproving their assailants are neither werewolves nor demonically possessed.

As Juan manages to kill Yiya’s infected, now-able-bodied husband with a blow to the head, the lads finally realise what their foes are: zombies!

Cue lots of panic, a great deal of chasing through the streets and close shaves as Juan tries to get across town and save the one person he cares the most about, his estranged daughter Camila (Andrea Duro).

Eventually finding Camila safe, Juan takes her to the apartment roof dwelling of California, and asks the young Ashton Kutcher-alike to look after her. "You touch her," warns Juan, "I’ll rip your balls off and shove them up your arse". Charming.

Juan then races back across town in search of his buddy Lazaro. Finding him about to flee on their raft in an attempt to make it to the presumed safety of Miami, Juan coaxes Lazaro back onto dry land with the promise of an idea that will finally make them rich.

The idea? Rally round his mates, tool them up with weapons and start up a service whereby they offer to dispose of your undead loved ones in return for cash. In a crisis, this is what Cubans do, we’re told.

And so, as the new business is christened "Juan of the Dead", training begins on the apartment roof, our hero’s cohorts practicing their slaying skills on captured zombies. Meanwhile, Juan tries to forge a relationship with Camila, while noticing that she clearly has designs on California …

JUAN OF THE DEAD didn’t sound too inspiring, I must admit. If nothing else, tipping a nod to Romero’s classic DAWN OF THE DEAD but replacing one word with that of your lead character has already been done. And the similarities to SHAUN OF THE DEAD don’t end there. The mixture of comedy, zombie gore and occasional pathos (here, the scenes shared between Juan and Camila) are very familiar. Even the opening shots of folk going about their business zombie-like in Cuba recalls Edgar Wright’s earlier film rather strongly.

Happily, that’s where the similarities end. JUAN becomes more akin to an Alex De La Iglesia film as it goes on, its fine balance of dark humour and bad-taste drama agreeably echoing the likes of COMMON WEALTH and THE DAY OF THE BEAST in tone and success of execution.

An underwater zombie scene may well be intended as homage to Fulci, but it’s much more impressively shot than anything the Maestro could’ve mustered. Likewise, the sheer scope of some set-ups (hundreds of people running through the city streets in panic; dozen of small boats escaping their Cuban hell) impresses deeply. Considering it’s not easy to get a film made in Cuba, let alone a genre one, writer-director Alejandro Brugues achieves some amazing shots and set-pieces throughout.

Technically the film looks and sounds very good, it being nicely shot and proficiently edited. Good use is made of the beautifully archaic Cuban architecture and scenery, lending events a truly distinctive look and feel.

First and foremost, this film is a comedy. The script is smart and brisk, with as many one-liners as there are sight gags. And, as with De La Iglesia, most of the comedy hits the mark: there’s a satisfying wide berth given to the puerile, even if some of it is daft. If the dialogue leans a little heavily on cultural and political references, it is but a small quibble …

Gore is minor but action is frequent, and the zombie make-up is most appealing – harking back to foam latex effects of the 1980s.

Performances are uniformly good, with de Villegas taking top honours for his warm, honest portrayal of unlikely hero Juan. Geeky and awkward-looking in his undersized vest, he’s a clown with a straight face and a big heart beneath all the get-rich-quick scheming – again, a nerd we can root for, like Simon Pegg’s Shaun. It’s thanks to the combination of his acting and Brugues’ script that the film grows a heart, enabling it to register as drama as well as comedy.

JUAN is presented uncut on Metrodome’s UK DVD, in an attractive 16x9 transfer. The original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 has been preserved. Colours are tuned down and the film, flesh-tones etc, looks extremely natural as a result. Details are sharp, depth is pleasing, blacks are deep and strong.

The Spanish 2.0 audio is reliable too. English subtitles are burned in.

From the moment you reach the vibrant, gaudy animated main menu page – set to a fantastically inappropriate disco-esque score – you’re clued in as to what to expect. From there, a static scene-selection menu is split across two pages, allowing access to the film via 12 chapters.

Unusually, there is no bonus material: not even a trailer for the main feature.

All we get are a trio of unrelated trailers, defaulted to play as the disc opens up: STAKELAND, GRAVE ENCOUNTERS and the oddly out of place RESISTANCE.

JUAN OF THE DEAD may be derivative in many respects, but makes good use of its unique local surroundings and cultural quirks to set it apart from any other zom-com in recent memory. With a likeable lead character, an agreeable pace and some superb old-school FX, the film is also frequently very funny. There’s little not to like here. Apart from the disappointingly barebones DVD.

Review by Stuart Willis

Released by Metrodome Distribution
Region 2 - PAL
Rated 18
Extras :
see main review