Patton Oswalt has a stand-up bit about the potential upside of a zombie apocalypse. “It would just be the living and the bloodthirsty dead,” the comedian quips, suggesting mankind’s petty differences would collapse in the face of a flesh-eating horde. Zombie-movie fans are used to being told otherwise. If the films of George A. Romero and his countless imitators have taught us anything, it’s that the threat of carnivorous cadavers pales in comparison to the punishment humans can inflict on each other.
Romero didn’t invent this brand of dime-store misanthropy—years earlier, Rod Serling asked who the real monster was—but he did infect the genre with it. More than four decades after his Night of the Living Dead, filmmakers still use the reanimated-corpse scenario as a litmus test for humanity, an excuse to examine the moral mettle of a group of flawed civilians. For contrasting examples of this undying trend, look to AMC’s deadly serious, life-after-the-outbreak series The Walking Dead and Cuban director Alejandro Brugués’s take-no-prisoners horror spoof Juan of the Dead, which debuts on VOD this week.
The latter plays the rampant cynicism of zombie cinema for gallows humor. The title evokes both Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and Edgar Wright’s affectionate parody Shaun of the Dead—though the sweetness of the Wright film is conspicuously absent. Our “heroes” are a pair of middle-aged nobodies (Alexis Díaz de Villegas and Jorge Molina) who scheme to capitalize on the undead army invading Havana in droves. The two slayers-for-hire often do more harm than good; one zombie extermination ends with Molina’s amoral knucklehead—Nick Frost to De Villegas’s Simon Pegg—turning his machete on an uninfected neighbor. “He owed me money,” he says with a shrug.
For all its jokey carnage, Juan of the Dead has a subversive edge. While Romero used his rotting masses to satirize everything from racist mob mentality to mindless consumerism, Brugués takes aim at a culture of self-serving corruption. Instead of containing the epidemic, representatives of the Castro government offer only propaganda, blaming the violence on U.S.-funded dissidents. De Villegas’s Juan, meanwhile, rationalizes his exploitation of the locals: “I’m Cuban—I do what I have to do.” Not even a late-game bid for redemptive pathos sterilizes the film’s bite. One wonders how such a scathing allegory escaped censorship and suppression.
Though much more somber, The Walking Dead looks hopeful in comparison. The show’s third season begins in October, leaving time for the uninitiated to catch up with ex–police officer Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and his caravan of fellow travelers, who search for sanctuary in an American South overrun by shuffling fiends. Based on a popular comic book, the series owes a clear debt to Romero; each episode derives its tension more from the conflicts among its mismatched companions than the moaning menace on their periphery.
Yet The Walking Dead’s humans soldier on and endure. Pessimism and optimism are in equilibrium; while some of these lost souls choose to die alone, others find strength in numbers. Ultimately, the show’s worldview is closer in spirit to Oswalt’s rose-colored doomsday fantasy than Romero’s endlessly bleak, man-eat-man vision of the apocalypse. That, of course, assumes there’s not a dead end lurking in Rick and co.’s uncertain future. What greater tribute to Night of the Living Dead could the show’s creators offer than snatching defeat from the jaws of victory?
Juan of the Dead arrives on VOD and DVD Tuesday 14. Episodes of The Walking Dead are now on Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Netflix Watch Instantly and VUDU.