Juan of the Dead

A scene from Juan of the Dead (Focus World)

What would happen if zombies invaded Havana? That's the idea behind Juan of the Dead, the first Cuban zombie movie. Director Alejandro Brugués, who was in town last September for his film's world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, thinks the Cuban people, who have endured countless privations since Fidel Castro rose to power in 1959, would likely shrug it off as yet another challenge to their existence.

"Things happen to us and we keep living like nothing happened," he says. "It's just something that adds to our daily lives. So I thought, 'If this happens, what would we do to show how we Cubans react to problems but only the next step was zombies?' So putting zombies in there and just behaving like nothing was happening and going on with their lives, trying to do business, which is what Cubans do. When things get tough, we all leave in the raft!"

Juan of the Dead stars the lanky Alexis Díaz de Villegas as Juan, a Havana slacker who decides to take advantage of the dead rising from the grave by starting a service with friends to exterminate his neighbour's undead "beloved" ones. Meanwhile, the government continues to insist that the flesh-hungry residents, who are gradually taking over the capital city, are in fact political dissidents in the employ of the American government. No zombie uprising here!

Given the absurdity of Cuban life, which has been hugely shaped by the ongoing American embargo which prevents most foreign goods from coming into the country, many of the film's most outrageous images - survivors turning a car into a boat in order to paddle to Miami, using expired drugs to treat wounds because fresh ones aren't available, a bus full of citizens crashing (minus the zombies) - are inspired by actual incidents and the harsh realities of life in Cuba.

"I tell you it's unbelievable how much of that was taken from the Cuban reality," Brugués says.

While Juan of the Dead has an inherently political dimension, the director won't cop to any particular government criticism. Perhaps that's just a canny way of making sure he can travel freely in the future, but Brugués insists he was just trying to put a fresh twist on his favourite genre.

"I get to do a zombie film, which is an idea that I really love, and I get to talk about stuff that bothers me or that interests me. So it was awesome to put those two things together in a film."

A life-long genre fan exposed to foreign horror thanks to his travels as a child with his diplomat parents, Brugués started writing Juan during post-production in Spain on his debut feature, 2006's Personal Belongings. He then pitched his Spanish co-producer Inti Herrara on making a zombie movie in Cuba, even though zombies are not part of the Cuban culture. Herrera loved the idea, and they started putting the financing together, with shooting taking place over eight weeks in late-2010.

The American embargo affected the production as well, with all the zombie prosthetics and latex having to be brought into the country via the Mexican effects team, who worked with their Cuban counterparts to make up the hundreds of extras.

"I don't know how they did it, but they made some pretty good zombies," Brugués says.

Given the autocratic nature of the Cuban government, Brugués was pleasantly surprised by how "amazingly easy" shooting in Havana was. While the government-run film agency did take a look at the script (a common practice), he says they demanded no changes and offered a great deal of co-operation, even shutting down Havana's famous El Malecón esplanade for three days for an epic sequence where hundreds of zombie "dissidents" chase Juan and his companions.

"I felt like a child, playing in there," he says. "It was awesome.

After its premiere at TIFF, Juan of the Dead subsequently screened at Austin's Fantastic Fest and picked up the Audience Award at this year's Miami Film Festival. It's been picked up for distribution in the U.S. by Focus Features, and screens in Toronto as part of Toronto After Dark's Summer Screenings at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema this Wednesday prior to making its way to VOD, DVD and Blu-ray this August. All this audience love indicates a strong affection for the film, and while we won't spoil the ending, suffice it to say that it leaves room for a second foray into Juan's world. Is that a possibility?

"Everyone is asking me that! I would love to spend more time in this world with these characters, but at the same time I don't want to do zombies now because zombies are really hard to do and they are really painful, and I also don't want to be the Cuban guy who does zombies. But at some point I would want to go back because the actors are amazing to work with; they love the characters. I love the characters and Havana."

So he would never defect to the US or elsewhere?

"It obviously crosses [the] mind of every Cuban at some point," Brugués admits, "but I think that's not the answer. If you really love that place, I think you have to fight for it."

Juan of the Dead screens at 7 pm, June 27, at Toronto's Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor St. W.) as part of Toronto After Dark's Summer Screenings series.