‘Juan of the Dead’: A Celebration of Cuba’s People [Horror En Espanol]

Juan of the Dead

Cuba is an island of paradise that’s steeped in culture as the past lures and the future pulls. Although it wasn’t always this way. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, their economic depression called The Special Period in Time of Peace began. During this era, the entrepreneurial spirit started to emerge. Now tourists can enjoy cheap food and entertainment as they flock amongst the palm tree-riddled streets with the Caribbean locals. 

Cuba’s Relationship with Genre Films

But before all of this, in the entertainment side of Cuba in 1985, the closest thing to a genre film was released. It was an animated adult film titled Vampiros en la Habana. Only this film was played more for laughs as the film took shots at the Cuban fascist regime and United States capitalist ideals. In between the shots at both countries there are unfortunately depictions of racist caricatures while consistently referencing Cuban culture and historical topics.

25 years after Vampiros en la Habana, Cuba is cinematically threatened with its first horror film. This lively island with history is now an inescapable cage when an evil entity attacks. When water is your only surrounding and the closest escape is 90 miles away by boats, what more can a Cuban local do in a zombie outbreak than start a business.

The Survival Instinct

Juan of the Dead is a horror comedy that rehashes old tropes while still bringing in something new. The name may seem like a parody of Shaun of the Dead. But this Carribean zombie flick takes a life of its own filled with the rum-infested undead.

In the midst of all the scenes of panic within the initial outbreak, government lies, confusion, and the start of a new world, this film is both a parody and celebration of the Cuban people. In an interview with Cine Maverick, director Alejandro Brugùes mentioned that the theme is an extremely Cuban message. Juan is a survivor. Cubans are survivors. 

They survived Mariel in the 1980s which was mass emigration from Cuba to Florida. The community turned against these “traitors” as they were choosing counter-revolution. They survived Angola, Cuba’s involvement in the respected South African state’s civil war by sending over 36,000 troops. They survived The Special Period in Time of Peace which led to a shortage of essentials. This stage cinematically paralleled a post-apocalyptic world, especially a carnivorous zombie-infested one. Many were killed in each historical event, but Cubans continue to survive.

The Five Man Band Trope

The Five Man Band trope is a set of traits typically given to an archetypical team whose mission is to defeat a unified evil that threatens them and the world. It consists of The Hero, The Lancer, The Smart Guy, The Big Guy, and The Chick. Within the first act of Juan of the Dead we meet our Five Man Band. Juan (Alexis Díaz de Villegas) and Lázaro (Jorge Molina) are established as The Hero and The Lancer before meeting the rest of the team. Juan is The Hero because he states his mantra “I survived Mariel, I survived Angola, I survived the Special Period and the thing that came afterward. Give me a piece of string and I’ll fix it”.

Lázaro is The Lacer because in both comedic and serious moments his harpoon kills come in plenty. California (Andros Perugorría) is reminiscent of the beach life in Havana. He’s a play on The Smart Guy trope as his demeanor follows the stoner surfer traits.

Cuba is known for a high volume of sex tourism, the sex workers there are known as Jineteras for the women and Jineteros for the gay men. Brugùes gives a quick look at this side of the island, which isn’t normally shown in Cuban cinema, with the characters The Big Guy and The Chick. The Big Guy is characterized by El Primo (Eliecer Ramírez), which translates to The Cousin. Brugùes cleverly plays with his giant physique by causing him to faint at any sign of blood. This leads to hilarious sequences of zombie struggles in the second half of the film. And finally, The Chick who is known as La China (Jazz Vilá) which translates to The Asian Woman, is a gay sex worker who is an expert slingshot marksman.

Hope for the Future of Cubans

The beauty of these characters is that Brugùes doesn’t use these characters strictly for laughs unlike Vampiros en la Habana. Each of the characters in Juan of the Dead shine through the dark apocalyptic days as they roam around the torn Havana killing loved ones and other Cuban inhabitants. Brugùes uses the people who are normally seen as outcasts on the island as a sign of hope with the new business called Juan of the Dead.  

“Juan of the Dead, we kill your beloved ones. How can I help you?”

In an interview, Brugùes states how the film raises the question “When a decision is at hand, do Cubans pick the right choice?” This all begins when Juan and the rest of the crew decide to stay on the island as opposed to the rest of the country who is leaving by handmade rafts paralleling the Cuban Raft Exodus in the 1990s. From here we see the inevitable zombie trope of the group diminishing one by one through fatal mistakes.

By the climax of the film, our last survivors from the Five Man Band are California, Lázaro, and Juan. When the chance to leave through a raft is available, the trio decides to stay on the island for a second time. Juan can’t leave his homeland even after what he’s been through. He’s going to reclaim his paradise island and fight the zombies with his blood-stained oar because after all his mantra says it all. He survived a revolution, a dictatorship, and a shortage. He survives because that’s what he does best. Survival is what Cubans do best.

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