(New) Land(s) of the Dead

Posted by Gabriel Eljaiek-Rodriguez on February 24, 2014 in Gabriel A. Eljaiek-Rodriguez, Guest Blog tagged with

Cubans can be proud of their cigars, the rhythm of their son, and, most recently, for cultivating the first (and probably only) zombie-killing delivery system, with services provided by a troupe of four ne’er-do-wells under the command of the eponymous Juan. These particular sets of characters give body to the movie Juan de los muertos (Juan of the Dead 2011) by Alejandro Brugués, marking the Cuban debut into zombie cinematography and geography. This movie – like other Latin American films such as Vampires in Habana (1985 by Juan Padrón) and Celestino and the vampire (2003 by Radamés Sánchez) – reinterprets the zombie subject and its many representations produced since the late ’60s, appropriating codes of staging and creating comic-horrific works where the locale permeates the overarching themes and where, despite the apocalyptic nature of the threat, the characters’ agency and idiosyncrasies save the day and allow them to prevail.

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This movie can be read also as a way of re-appropriation, given the Caribbean origins of the zombie trope, as well as a way to reposition Cuban cinema, both within the geography of the undead and within contemporary cinematic maps. Due to the extreme expansion of the virus – or the strange condition that transforms humans into undead eating machines –the zombies are back in the Caribbean lands that spurred their origin myth in a re-tropicalized return. The Caribbean is thus reaffirmed as the terrifying space of the monstrous and the cannibal, but now there is an additional controlled narrative that critiques and transforms the colonial stories while simultaneously paying homage to the genre.

This is certainly the case in Juan of the Dead, where Alejandro Brugués appropriates the zombie theme – in a similar way as represented in Shaun of the Dead (2004) by Edgar Wright –, adapting and relating it to contemporary Cuba, specifically with the way that Cuban society positions (and has previously positioned) themselves in relation to political and social unrest, exalting the adaptive capacity of his countrymen while mocking the cliché that Cubans can face any problem and emerge unscathed. In Juan of the Dead the zombie apocalypse breaks out in a country where there is near-constant sociopolitical turmoil, in a place where public demonstrations and protests are a part of daily life; in a place that can double as a microcosm of Latin America.

The vagrants at the center of the action are survivors not only because they manage to stay alive in a world full of undead corpses, but also because of their ability to take advantage of the circumstances that surround them, in an act that seems to mirror their pre-apocalypse survival- they are presented as survivors (of political, economic and social upheaval) long before the zombie plague breaks out. Post-outbreak, they merely acquire new skills and tactics, adapting to economic change and taking advantage of the social chaos: this logic of survival (by any means necessary) is what spurs the characters to create a service to kill the undead by delivery (using the hilarious motto “Juan of the dead, we kill your loved ones. How can we help you?”). In addition, it is interesting to note that the service operates during the crucial moments of the transformation of the population of Havana into zombies, because this fact makes the Cuban film stand out in relation to other films that use black humor to address the issue, such as Shaun of the Dead or Fido where the only possible way of exploiting zombies comes after a considerable amount of time has passed and the army (or some form of government) has regained control. In Juan of the Dead, the protagonists refuse to wait to entrust the zombie-slaying efforts to a higher authority and instead decide to take immediate control with their own (blood-spattered) hands.

Brugués carries the consequences of the dehumanization of zombies to an extreme conclusion, with the creation of a service that allows for the murder of dead relatives, which cannot be legally or socially penalized due to the zombie apocalypse. The ominous zombie character (in his familiar unfamiliarity) is operationalized as the target of a service for economic gain, subverting the genre that became famous precisely for its critique of consumerism through sinister beings that return from the dead.

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Like Juan de los muertos, the [• REC] film series, directed by Paco Plaza and Jaume Balagueró (2007, 2009 and 2012) is undoubtedly one of the most important and successful series of zombie movies in Hispanic America, as well as a transformer of the zombie sub-genre. The success of this franchise is due in part to the masterful handling of aesthetics and themes of zombie’s films, but also because of the way that they transgress expected tropes and include atypical and unexpected elements, specifically elements belonging to the Catholic tradition. The religious origins of these zombie hybrids are outlined in [• REC] and explained in [• REC] ²: the first infected person is Tristana Medeira, a Portuguese girl who at age 11 “began to show symptoms of possession”, as stated by Dr. Owen, the priest/scientist in charge of the investigation in the second part of the series. The possessed girl is moved to Barcelona and subjected to intrusive studies in order to attempt to understand the possession (from both a scientific and a theological point of view) and find a cure for it.

This inclusion of Catholic elements provides such radical changes as the form in which the virus spreads: while in “traditional ” zombie films the epidemic expands blindly and randomly, in [• REC] it is a demonic consciousness that seems to control the expansion and dissemination, manipulating what, at first glance, might seem random. In this sense, the zombies in [• REC] are situated in a unique and privileged position, halfway between the undead product of a scientific error and a possession controlled by evil spirits contrary to Christianity.

Another important transformation brought about by the [• REC] films is the use of the found footage aesthetic, not new or unique to the horror genre as a whole, but still innovative within the zombie subgenre. In the first installation of the series, the viewers of the film are transformed into the public of the TV program Mientras usted duerme (While you sleep), privileged witnesses to both the mechanics of the program as well as to the events happening in the apartment building where the film takes place. The name of the program reinforces the idea of seeing something normally inaccessible, which is, in this case, daily life in a fire station and the beginning of a zombie epidemic. Moreover, in both cases the people not watching the program fail to see what’s going on with the undead outbreak – they are asleep both literally and metaphorically. In [• REC] ² and [• REC] ³ the viewer plays an important role as well (as these films follow the same construction as found footage documents) and is again included in the action, seemingly at the mercy of the aggressive and hungry zombies.

The Spanish undead are controlled – possessed – by a demonic entity that has deprived them of individuality and consciousness that encourages them to transmit the virus creating more demonic “followers”. In this fashion, [• REC] zombies add a new category to the classification proposed by Kevin Boon in “The Zombie as Other: Mortality and the Monstrous in the Post-Nuclear Age”:  the “possessed Zombie”, a character that blends classic images of the undead (“Drone Zombie”, “Zombie Ghoul”, “Zombie Channel”, among others) with the powerful image of the possessed and its cinematic legacy, created and sustained by films like The Exorcist, The Amityville Horror, Demons, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, among others.

Both Juan of the Dead and the [• REC] franchise include their respective countries in the filmic geography of zombies (which has been growing uncontrollably since 1968) boosting the public and demand for this subgenre inside and outside their borders, and situating themselves both as perfect examples of the subgenre as well as rule breakers and innovators. Proof of that is the cult status that these two films have achieved in Latin America and the United States, and the existence of Quarantine (2008), the less-than-stellar US remake of [• REC]   by John Erick Dowdle. In this sense, the same disease that affected Brugués and Balagueró and Plaza continues its (sometimes frenetic) expansion, infiltrating the cinematography of other Latin American countries and guaranteeing the promise of a future full of innovative and exciting attacks by furious undead hordes.

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