HAVANA (AP) — What would you do if your entire city was taken over by flesh-eating zombies and communist leaders insisted it was nothing but a plot by U.S-backed dissidents to destabilize the government?
If you were the protagonist of Juan de los Muertos — "Juan of the Dead" — the first zombie flick ever shot in post-revolutionary Cuba, you'd figure out how to make some cash out of the carnage.
Part horror show, part social satire, the soon-to-be-shot movie has the backing of a Spanish production company, a green light from Cuban authorities and a budget that dwarfs most big-screen offerings from the island.
And its irreverent humor — one blurb for the film proclaims: "Fifty years later, a new Revolution has begun" — could make Juan of the Dead the next big thing in Cuban cinema, and give it a real chance at global success.
It is the second film by 34-year-old writer-director Alejandro Brugues, who says his idea was to tell a story that was authentically Cuban — but within the logic of a camp zombie flick. Closest to his heart, he said, is a quintessential island knack for making ends meet, whether by keeping a rusty '57 Chevy on the road for half a century, or finding a way to feed a family on a salary of $20 a month.
Locals even have a saying for how they will overcome the constant hurdles that are part of daily life on this cash-strapped, crumbling island: "I'll invent something."
"We Cubans have had to deal with a whole series of problems in the last 50 years," Brugues told The Associated Press, an allusion to the decades of economic hardship and isolation that have followed Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution, particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
"We have become accustomed to resolving problems on our own and finding a way to survive. So I was thinking, 'How would a Cuban survive a zombie epidemic."
As Brugues spoke, makeup artists in another room were transforming actors into blood-soaked zombies, a process that can take up to five hours. A gruesome zombie head lay on a table alongside multiple cups of coffee and cigarette butts, and a producer was testing out the believability of a detached, latex hand by sneaking up on unsuspecting production assistants and tapping them on the shoulder with it.
Preproduction got under way this week, with shooting slated to start in late October. the filmmakers hope to release the movie in the spring or summer of next year, and plan to role it out at several film festivals before showing it to a wider audience.
The movie's plot is simple: A 40-year old layabout named Juan finds a zombie floating in the water while fishing off the coast of Havana. The zombie attacks but Juan makes a narrow escape, only to find that the undead are all over the city. State-run media blames the whole thing on government opponents backed by Cuba's archenemies in Washington, but Juan knows better — and comes up with a plan.
Together with his sidekick, Lazaro — described by the filmmakers as "just as lazy, but twice as stupid" — Juan puts out the word that he is open for business.
Has your grandmother been turned into a zombie? Is your uncle stumbling about with blood coming out of his mouth?
Juan and Lazaro promise to get rid of your undead loved ones for just 15 Cuban convertible pesos ($16) a pop, and to clean up the mess for an extra 20 ($21).
The duo are making good money until they find themselves the only non-zombies left in the city, with the rest of the population having either fled or been infected.
The movie is backed by Spain's La Zanfona Producciones, two Spanish television channels, the government of Spain's Andalucia region and the state-run Cuban Institute of Art and Cinematography. It has a budget of $2.1 million, most of which is going to special effects that have to be added in Spain because the technology is not available in Cuba.
"Clearly, it is a very small budget for an international zombie movie," said Claudia Calvino, the film's 27-year-old Cuban co-producer. "But that's a lot of money for a Cuban movie."
Another co-producer, 34-year-old Inti Herrera, said most Cuban films are made for less than $300,000. He said that the makers of Juan of the Dead are hoping to produce something that has a professional feel to it which can be enjoyed by audiences everywhere — even the United States.
"We really hope it comes out and is shown widely in theaters there," said Brugues. "That is definitely our idea."
Brugues says part of the movie's message deals with whether one should stay and face problems or get out of town when the going gets tough — a politically sensitive topic in a country divided between those who have lived through the revolution for better or worse, and those who have left for exile in South Florida and elsewhere.
But he insists the film is not political.
"I want people to have a good time at the theater," Brugues says. "And I promise liters and liters of blood."