Month of Horror 2016: Genre Exploration – Zombies: Juan of the Dead

Editor’s Note: The links within all point back to the original sources.  Perhaps one day I will fix them but more than likely I will keep them as is to honor the past (and because it is so much easier).  Links to the AVC are likely off due to the Kinja switchover.

10/08/2016 – Zombies: Juan of the Dead (2011)
Directed by Alejandro Brugués

I remember a time where the word “zombies” elicited more than a weary sigh. Once again we can blame Shaun of the Dead (as well as the earlier 28 Days Later…, the remake of Dawn of the Dead, and later The Walking Dead) for a boom in production of zombie films, now probably the laziest of horror genres. Zombies are perfect for ease of use because they are recognizable, require no characterization as villains, can be killed indiscriminately and without remorse while still appearing recognizably human, and have a built in fanbase who eats this shit up. That’s not to say I don’t love a good zombie film/game/whatever, because I do, it’s just become associated with crap for a while now in a way found footage (another associated with lazy filmmaking but we’ll talk about that later) could only dream of.

Before we get started, anyone caught saying fast zombie films are not zombies will be given the boot and fed to a vicious pack of their peers. The truth is, if you want to be a pedant, Romero zombies aren’t zombies either (a fact supported by Romero’s official opinion which has since softened) since the term refers to a specifically Haitian superstition where dead bodies are reanimated as slaves by magic placing them closer to yesterday’s subject of witches. These type of zombies were the first depicted in films such as the solid White Zombie (and similarly in the much later and very good The Serpent and the Rainbow, the great I Walked with a Zombie, and less great films such as The Revenge of the Zombies and Zombies of Mora Tau. Even before the present day zombies were associated with generally crap films such as Plan 9 from Outer Space and plenty of MST3K entries, but they all had a general mystical component to them even when divorced from a Haitian setting.

As hinted before, both our modern understanding of the term and the popularity of the genre as a whole stem from George Romero’s “Dead” films starting with the masterful Night of the Living Dead. The film which drew from the tradition of Lovecraft’s Herbert West–Reanimator, Matheson’s I Am Legend’s vampires (as the numerous film adaptations have shown, the line between vampires and zombies can be really slim since both our undead creatures who feed on humans), and EC comics combined all them with the notion of zombies not as mindless slaves, but as mindless flesh eaters and also gave the genre its true staying power with its social commentary since slow moving zombies are hardly that scary. That film alone spawned three hugely important series. Romero’s “Dead” series featuring the even more fantastic Dawn of the Dead, the great and underrated Day of the Dead, the mediocre Land of the Dead, the stupid but fair enough Diary of the Dead, and Survival of the Dead emphasized the social commentary and each one can be held up as a reflection of the time period they were made (and generally not in a dated sense). Lucio Fulci’s “Zombi” series emphasized the gore while John Russo’s official continuation in the “Living Dead” films are what popularized the now obnoxious idea that zombies eat brains.

Besides these titles, the next few decades gave us some classics such as Night of the Comet, the adaptation Re-AnimatorNight of the CreepsBraindead, and Pet Sematary mixed amongst all the crap. 2003 and 2004 brought to us 28 Days Later…and Dawn of the Dead which to pardon the phrase interjected new life into the tired shambling corpse of a genre with its concept of fast zombies who while frequently infected as opposed to undead, maintained the same basic principle and interjected actual horror into the genre since they posed an actual threat besides just in their numbers or to the idiots who stood around waiting for zombies to catch up to them. Shaun of the Dead, on the other hand, while hardly the first horror-comedy take on zombies, treated the subject with respect while also being hilarious and every horror-comedy zombie film since has desperately tried to copy it. The number of zombies films since has exploded even more with the many standouts being the Night of the Creeps descendant SlitherFido[REC]and [REC] 2, the sequel 28 Weeks LaterPlaent TerrorPontypoolDance of the DeadI Sell the DeadZombielandDead SnowCockneys vs Zombies, and Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead. While most of these were released before The Walking Deadstarted and inexplicably (both from a quality and the fact that horror series are rarely popular) became the biggest scripted show on TV, it’s hard to deny that the show has made zombies an even more popular choice among low budget filmmakers hoping to get in on that money.

After last year’s world tour, it’s throwing me off that I’m only on the fourth (with the previous three all being on day two) foreign movie of the month. Unlike those films, Juan of the Dead comes from Cuba and since I didn’t get to Cuba last year, I feel I need to talk about it here for completeness sake. As best I can tell, Juan of the Dead is the first horror film from the country but it’s far from the first notable film they have turned out. Cuba is one of the few countries whose film industry actually grew in acclaim when taken over by a dictator (though cinema there dates back to silent era) such as the releases of the Sight and Sound honored I Am Cuba (quite possibly the only Cuban film I’ve seen) and Memories of Underdevelopment in the 60’s and the Oscar nominated Strawberry and Chocolate from 1994.

The title Juan of the Dead, even more than most horror-comedy zombie films, makes it even more obvious how much it wants to remind you of Shaun of the Dead but I’m perfectly fine with “[Name] of the Dead” becoming the horror equivalent of “Once Upon a Time in [Location]”. While they have some things in common including a pair of buddies in the lead (the competent lead and the bumbling sidekick before expanding to a larger group and the lead trying to win back someone (his daughter’s affection instead of his girlfriend) but tonally they feel far different. Juan of the Dead has zero pretentions of being a horror film. Most comedies are filled with more tension that this film has. While the fact that the main characters seeming mostly unconcerned with the zombies at first is amusing, their lack of motivation most of the time just creates a slack feel and makes the movie drag.

Even as a comedy it elicits more chuckles than full laughs. The referring to zombies referred to as dissidents by the government (though this becomes the in universe term) with constant denials that anything major is wrong and blaming the US would be funny and cutting if they didn’t feel the need to then have the characters feel the need to comment on this and explicitly state the message. A lengthy scene featuring them confusing zombies with vampires (and even werewolves) probably got the most out of me but it, along with everything else, just seems to lack timing. The next best scenes (a fight with a handcuffed zombie made to look like dancing and a gap in language barrier) both suffer as well from major issues (respectively in that they rarely even try to make it look like a fight or vaguely natural and by dragging out the scene far too long). SPOILER The best friend being infected was almost uncomfortably Shaun of the Dead-eque and I like the idea of them pulling a reversal but tying it up in a tortuously prolonged gay joke just pissed me off. There’s of course the extremely stereotypical crossdressing gay man with both gay characters as the only ones who die amongst the prominent characters. END OF SPOILER

The film looks generally alright except for when the camera is asked to move too much and a noticeable motion blur sets in. The special effects similarly look pretty good except for when they call for some Syfy level CGI but I don’t think the movie cares about how noticeable it is. I can at least give the movie a break since unlike that garbage, it does seem to be trying. And for the most part, it’s fine. It has some neat ideas and a fine chemistry between the actors even if the comedy and commentary come up a bit short. I can’t call it a good movie or recommend it, but it’s nice to have an amiable film such as this after a couple films which really pissed me off.

Bonus Episode #14 – Zombies: World War Z (2013)
Directed by Marc Forster

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When guessing the highest grossing zombie movie of all time, you would be forgiven for not guessing the film that supposedly (I can’t confirm since I never read it) butchered the plot of a highly acclaimed novel by Max Brooks (son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft), had a third act so bad they had to reshoot the thing complete with substantial delays, a cost that exceeded the initial budged by $65 million dollars, surrounded by rumors that the director had been replaced in the middle, and a mediocre critical response. Then again, even with all the great zombie films, none have had a star nearly so big as Brad Pitt and certainly none even near the $190 million it cost to make (I wouldn’t be shocked if the cost of every other zombie film made was about that total). The PG-13 rating also couldn’t have hurt but for the record I watched the unrated version on the advice of light Googling I remember doing a while ago.

Very quickly the film establishes what kind of film it is first, a modern action film with all the quick cutting, shaky cam, big set pieces, and 2+ hour runtime that entails. Action horror movies (such as AliensPredatorDeath Proof, and Resident Evil) all tend to emphasize the former and for good reason. It’s hard to generate effective horror when the good guys are military busy running around shooting things in groups. Outside of the sequences where Brad Pitt has to evade them and protect his family, armed only with a long range weapon in tight quarters and the scene with a trio of people sneaking by with melee weapons and a single pistol, the movie never feels all that suspenseful. There’s no build, just lots of running, shooting, and loud noises.

Probably the most important part of a zombie film is a quality looking zombie (especially if you are going to see them a bunch) and this is without a doubt the film’s greatest failing. When there’s one or two of them, the zombies generally look fine but then again that because they are just humans hilariously launching themselves at things with colored contacts and a minor skin problem. Once they start showing degraded zombies or in packs, the awful CGI ruins the entire thing. The film just turns into a PS3 game with zombies that don’t look even recognizably similar to the zombies in every other scene. I saw more believable looking undead in Army of Darkness than in those mobs.
The movie is dumber than a bag of bricks which is okay for a dumb action movie, but I feel like the movie wants to be something more (or more likely that is remnants from the source material) and it’s almost adorable in its efforts. For example, how the fück are airplanes the perfect delivery system? What plane is going to take off and make it to a new place where the virus literally takes 12 seconds from bite to symptoms showing. You don’t need to be an expert in virology, just not a dunce to know that. Even when SPOILERS zombie gets on a plane later, there’s no way the plane would have even gotten as far as it did without the very specific set of circumstances that arose. Or why the fuck weren’t the Israelis actually bothering to guard their walls and see a giant damn tower building up on it? I get you have really big walls but surely no one is that stupid? Were there no loud sounds or whatever before Brad Pitt showed up? Why isn’t the war done at the end since the whole bloody point of that flashback was to show that infected humans were ignored while zombies rampaged. END OF SPOILERS

It’s all contrived, idiotic, and empty spectacle. The film seems to be reverse engineered from its big action scenes which would be fine if they were anything special but they aren’t. The time has passed where the amount of CGI can impress, now’s the time for hiding it. SPOILERS I’m not sure if the movie found it as hilarious as me when the virologist dies because he slipped and shot himself in a scene straight out of Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, but boy was it ever. Or when Brad Pitt just loads all the worst diseases ever into a metal tin. END OF SPOILERS But hey, stuff blows up good and Peter Capaldi shows up for a nothing role. Watch it as a stupid action comedy or throw it on in the background where the plot doesn’t matter and it’s fine. Otherwise it is just a big missed opportunity for examining the effect of zombies on a global scale and for looking at it through a scientific light SPOILERS (and not have just have some investigator blunder in and think of the cure while all the scientists stand around doing jack). END OF SPOILERS

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