The Austin Chronicle

FF2011: 'Juan of the Dead' Premiere

By Richard Whittaker, September 24, 2011, 3:30pm, Picture in Picture

Last night's US debut of Juan of the Dead was a strange sort of homecoming for Havana's first film at Fantastic Fest. Director Alejandro Brugues explained, "There's a reason why this is the first Cuban film here. That reason is you guys."

The Cuban-Spanish co-production zombie comedy got its US premier last night to uproarious applause at the Alamo South Lamar, but it had already been building up some serious Internet buzz.

Think about that for a second. Sometimes it's easy to forget how easy film fans and wannabe film makers have it when it comes to finding out about upcoming films or superindie buzz projects. It was not so easy for Brugues: As he told the Drafthouse crowd last night, " When I decided I wanted to be a film maker, I read everything I could about films and all that. In Cuba, it was impossible to get things. Internet is illegal – it still is. I managed to get it illegally and read things by some of the people who are here. So I pretty much learned what comics to read and what films to watch, so I'm pretty much a product of you guys. I made this film making about this audience, because I've heard so much about this festival. While I was writing, while I was shooting, sometimes I was thinking about your possible reactions. So for me this is a dream come true."

He namechecked Latino Review and Ain't it Cool News as pivotal info sources, but reminded the audience (many of whom were laden down with laptops, iPads and smartphones) of the dial-up problems in a nation without easy access to DSL. "It's incredibly slow. You can't imagine how slow it is. Whenever I go outside, I try to read as much as I can. In Cuba, every day, many times a day, I go in and takes 15 minutes to load a page. Well, it's worth it."

The international bitemarks are all over the film, including the influence of the godfather of the undead. As George A. Romero can tell you, the key to a successful zombie movie may well be political and social metaphor, so Juan was not just about creating a zombie film in Cuba: It was about making a zombie film about Cuba. "I wanted to say a lot of things about Cuba, and things I observed about the Cuban reality," he said. "When you're in Cuba and you look at the people in the street, and well, some of them look like zombies." He was particularly eager to let the near-dead play the undead, so he wanted as many old people as possible. "We had dancers teach them how to move, and of course they forgot because they're old."

Some other extras got a little to caught up in the moment: During one mob attack, "One of the zombies actually bit the man and took some off his skin off his arm. We didn't fire him, we actually used him in three other scenes."

However, the most important local flavor may come from Cuban actor Alexis Díaz de Villegas' unflappable but tender performance as Juan, the roguish reluctant hero. Again Brugues had a real-life inspiration: "Everyone thinks about the title and Shaun [of the Dead] and I think Shaun is an amazing film, but I based the character on my brother Juan, who is pretty much like that. There are five or ten scenes that are taken from my brother's life. That guy on the raft at the beginning? That's my brother. When he jumps to the neighbor's balcony? That's my brother."

Fantastic Fest presents Juan of the Dead [Juan de Los Muertos] Monday Sept. 26, 11.15am.

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