Cuba’s first zombie movie, Juan Of The Dead is an absurd satire of life under dictator Fidel Castro. Confronted by imminent zombie apocalypse – initially covered up as an American-backed counter-revolution – losers Jaun and Lázaro try to turn supernatural catastrophe in an opportunity to make a quick buck and get laid.
As the movie makes its UK debut to terrific buzz and growing cult status, we talk to director Alejandro Brugués, to find out more about Cuba’s mix of black comedy, political satire, and stomach-churning gore…
What can viewers expect from Juan Of The Dead?
I think, what I tried to do is… make it good fun. Expect to have fun, expect to have a different vision from Cuba and of how Cubans are.
What was the inspiration behind Juan Of The Dead?
Well, there were many things. Shaun Of The Dead, obviously, was one of them! And one day I was talking with my producer about someone that I saw on the street and I said, “he looks like a zombie, that person.” And I thought we could make a zombie film with people like this, and we wouldn’t even need makeup! I thought I could do a film about zombies, and do a lot of social commentary, and show people how we are, how Cubans react to problems…
So how would you say people in Cuba react to problems, that’s different from other people in the world?
Pretty much like they do in the film! First, they act as if it hasn’t happened, and then they try to set up a business to make some money out of it, and then if things keep getting worse then they try to escape.
Do you think this film will show an international audience a side of Cuba they didn’t know about before, then?
Well, they don’t know much about Cuba. I’m pretty sure this will be a unique version of Cuba. But what I tried to do is make a funny zombie film, something that you can enjoy if you don’t know or you don’t care about Cuba. There is a Cuban social commentary in there but it doesn’t get in the way of having a good time.
And I think there are plenty of jokes that are pretty much international. I’ve shown the film all over the world and the reaction is always the same. So if you get the parts about Cuba, awesome, and if you don’t, you’ll have a good time anyway.
There’s a part of the humour in the film that’s only for Cuban people, we get more than the rest, but also for example there’s also the humour for fans of the zombie film, which I am, and that, sometimes the film has shown at film festivals and you get a geek audience, they really get it, and in Cuba they don’t get that. But there’s also humour for everyone.
It was hard to balance all these elements… and many many more.
What would you say your favourite zombie film is?
Evil Dead 2. It’s not a zombie film, but it’s my favourite. I saw that as a kid and it changed my life.
Was that what you had in mind while making Juan of the Dead, then?
No, I think Juan Of The Dead has a very peculiar tone. The tone was the most difficult thing about the film, I had to find balance, I had to have the political commentary because that’s what makes it unique and I had to have a zombie film, some action, some gore, not too much, it was very hard to balance all of that, and I wasn’t sure it did until I saw the finished film, and it was such a relief!
Did you face any other difficulties while filming?
It was all technical difficulties. Everyone asks that hoping for the big answer where people come and try to shut me down and I managed to shoot the damn thing anyway, but it wasn’t like that! It was just all the technical difficulties that you can have when you’re shooting with 300 zombies.
I had very good producers, I didn’t find out about most of the trouble while filming. Sometimes I don’t know how we managed to do it, when I think about it, and I’m not sure I’d want to do it again, if I could pull it off. I have a theory, I believe when they read the script, they said “Oh he’s not going to be able to do this.” So they said, tell him yes, but he’s not going to be able to pull this off.
So are you proud that you’ve managed to pull it off, in spite of that doubt?
Yeah! Of course, I am. And also so relieved. It’s funny, when I see the film, I think there were so many things that could have gone wrong, starting with the fact that a Cuban zombie film is something that hasn’t been done before, so there was no feeling here of how to do that, and then the title, which is obviously a reference to a much beloved zombie film of the last 20 years so there are so many things that could have gone wrong, but I don’t know, they didn’t! Everything turned out well.
Do you think the success of this film will pave the way for future films like it to be made in Cuba?
Cuban films right now are produced small in scope because, I don’t know, it’s easier to think, “I’m just gonna write something small, get $30,000 and go shoot.” I think what Juan Of The Dead can teach them is that you don’t have to limit your scope, you should write whatever you want and then go figure out how to make it. I hope we are going to see more bigger films, and more films coming out from Cuba.
Will you make something bigger in scope, something ambitious, next, then?
I want the next one to be much bigger. Much more ambitious!
Juan Of The Dead is in selected UK cinemas from 4 May 2012, and is expected on DVD from 4 June 2012, priced £9.99.