Horror directors often use humor to send up the genre. But it's not often you see a zombie comedy that's also a Cuban political allegory.
"Juan of the Dead," Alejandro Brugues' new Spanish-language genre comedy that premiered for the media Saturday afternoon at the Toronto Film Festive, is pretty much just that.
Set in modern-day Cuba, it examines a group of thirtysomething and fortysomething slackers led by the titular Juan (Alexis Diaz de Villegas). The group, leading an enjoyably dead-end life, finds itself in danger when the streets of Havana inexplicably begin to be filled by marauding zombies. Entrepreneurial types that they are (but not capitalists, no, never that), they grab a few weapons and begin hiring themselves out as a kind of zombie extermination outfit, then go about slaying the undead over the movie's 1970s-era disco soundtrack.
Despite the title, the film is not so much a knockoff of "Shaun of the Dead" as a knowing homage to it. More intriguing, political overtones are present pretty much from the opening scene. When the zombies start attacking, the government propaganda machine immediately labels them dissidents, and Juan and his group follow suit. "This time, the bad guys are not the Yankees but they're here among us," one of Juan's friends says.
But Brugues really seems to be skewering the government and the status quo, and it's soon evident, as Juan and his friends whack the lumbering zombies, that what the filmmaker is really doing is offering a kind of wish fulfillment for all those who want to destroy a Castro-induced malaise. (That message is particularly clear in a zombie massacre in the city's famed Revolution Square opposite the trademark Che billboard; all that's missing is Castro pounding on the lectern.)
"What if they go on like this for another 50 years?" one character asks another, one of the less subtle references to Fidel's government, which also has endured for roughly half a century.
According to producers, the movie is the first to be shot in post-revolution Cuba without the financial support of the Cuban government. Given the political message, you can see why, though the film's glorious shots of the Malecon and other evocations of the city's gritty charms won't get anyone in the tourism commission too upset.
Blending history and genre conventions is becoming more popular in modern cinema. "Let Me In" used vampires as a metaphor for Reagan's America, and the upcoming "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" has its own lessons to impart about the relationship between bloodsuckers and slave owners. In the end, Brugues' concept is better than the execution, but it's a tantalizing concept indeed, and don't be surprised to see more of these types of genre films begin to stagger around.
Photo: A scene from "Juan of the Dead." Credit: Toronto Film Festival