MIFF Director on Juan of the Dead Premiere at Toronto International Film Festival

Categories: Film and TV
Film Fiend features dispatches from Miami International Film Festival Director, Jaie Laplante, as he scopes flicks on the indie film festival circuit.

The 36th annual Toronto International Film Festival continued all weekend long with three more popcorn-packed days. After weeks of steadily building anticipation, director Cameron Crowe world premiered Pearl Jam Twenty on Saturday afternoon at the Princess of Wales Theater, followed by a full-blown concert by Pearl Jam on Sunday night at the Air Canada Center.

Even non-fans of the great rock band came away moved by the film, especially a profound scene of never-before-seen footage of Eddie Vedder slow-dancing with Kurt Cobain backstage at the 1992 VMAs, while Eric Clapton was on stage performing "Tears of Heaven."

Prior to Saturday's screening, Vedder had himself never seen the footage, although he vividly remembers the moment, only about 18 months before Cobain's suicide. (MIFF will co-present Pearl Jam Twenty in Miami next week as part of a nation-wide series of screenings the band has organized, one-night-only on September 20.)

While many of a certain age claimed "PJ20" as THE film experience of TIFF so far, Film Fiend's personal preference for most unique moment of this year's sprocket opera was the late night Saturday world premiere of the first-ever Cuban zombie comedy, Juan of the Dead (Juan de los Muertos). The cheesy, good-natured hilarity of this movie is a Mariel-boatload of fun.

The premise is that in Castro's Cuba, the entire population is turning into zombies. The joke is, who can tell the difference? The zombie mamacitos still shuffle along at their same dragging pace.

The movie opens with Juan (Alexis Días de Villegas) and his good friend Lazaro fishing from their tire-tube raft one lazy afternoon in the harbor just off from El Morro. Lazaro asks Juan if he's ever tempted to just go for it and paddle to Miami, an idea that Juan readily dismisses. "In Miami," he says. "I'd have to work."

The zombie revolution is as fast and furious as the revolution of 50 years ago, and soon the "normals" are reduced to a ragtag crew that includes Juan, Lazaro, "California" (a surfer cutie), "China", a transvestite with a mean slingshot, and her massive black bodybuilder boyfriend, "8th Wonder", who faints at the mere hint of blood.

With a particular island economic ingenuity, Juan and friends quickly set up a business of killing zombies for family members who are getting harassed by their former loved ones.

While loaded with giddy action sequences and dozens of zingy one-liners, Juan of the Dead frequently steers into gently bittersweet political commentary. The government dismisses the zombies as "dissidents" paid for by U.S. interests.

At the Q&A session after the film, director Alejandro Brugués revealed that he based the character of Juan on his real-life brother, also named Juan, who is now living in Miami. "There is a melancholy to Cubans who have lived in Cuban up to a certain time," said Brugués. For all the tongue-in-cheek fun of the movie, the ending has a lovely beauty that will leave a lump in many a throat.

A lump in the throat was something Film Fiend and most other TIFFgoers also throughout the day felt yesterday, on September 11th. TIFF, with the consent of all its sponsors, withdrew all of the usual pre-film sponsor trailers and instead played a four-minute documentary where long-time Festival participants remembered 9/11's 10th anniversary, when TIFF stopped for one full day, before starting up again in defiance on September 12, 2001. Art and life must defy terror, was the short's simple but powerful message. As they must.

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