The setting is indelibly Havana: Glimmering turquoise water, ramshackle raft, and behind the sweep of the malecón, looking toward the city past the shimmer of the ocean, Soviet Rationalist apartment blocks rising above baroque, curlicued buildings. In the city, rangy men in tank tops wander the streets and stooped old ladies with plaid roller-bags creep around potholes, heading home from the fruit market.

Juan, the title character in Cuban zombie film Juan of the Dead, and his best friend Lázaro fish on their raft off the malecón, the seawall that wraps Havana’s periphery. They come back into the city and bring us with them. Even in the first few scenes of the film, as we follow them down the sun-washed streets of downtown Vedado, we are immersed in the Cuban sense of humor that lashes against authority and political correctness and anything that takes them by surprise. It’s hard to surprise a Cuban because, as Juan says, “I’m a survivor. I survived Mariel, I survived the special period [the economic crisis that accompanied the fall of the USSR in 1992], and that thing that came after. This is paradise, and nothing will change that.”

His mythic presence promises Raul an easier, more glamorous life compared to the quick colloquial banter of the hot streets of Cuba, the sharp edges of teen angst.

Except zombies. Cubans have seen it all, survived it all, know it all, so, logically, the only thing that can flummox them is herds of the undead. When the endearing deadbeat Juan (played by Alexis Díaz de Villegas) discovers a talent for killing them, he decides to capitalize on the crisis. They’re seasoned hustlers—Juan and his cohorts had a vague neighborhood bootlegging corporation (or car-radio-stealing? All that’s clear is that they ran scams) before the zombie outbreak. With their new firm—composed of Juan; Lázaro; Lázaro’s son Vladi California; the resident drag queen and her number two, a giant who faints at the sight of blood; and Juan’s striking, supercilious daughter Camila, who’s lived in Spain long enough to acquire the accent—they’ll survive and even turn a profit.

Juan of the Dead doesn’t veer very far from 2004’s Shaun of the Dead, but that seems ancillary—the plot, like the title, you can almost hear writer-director Alejandro Brugués say with a dismissive flick of the wrist, is just the vessel for the jokes, the commentary. Maybe in this case it’s true. Juan takes for granted both the transcendent and dark facets of contemporary Cuban culture and makes them legible to non-Cuban viewers. Upside, the reflexive alliances among neighbors who have lived in the same moldering apartment block for much of their lives. Downside, the opportunism of a largely broke populace confronted with wealthy, designer-sunglasses-and-digital-camera-toting tourists at every turn. And zombies.

The zombies come on the scene, and the newscasters report on the latest provocations from the “dissidents supported by the Empire”—yet another U.S.-backed plot to do away with Fidel. Raucous, un-PC scenes lovingly reference Cuba’s atheism, as when Juan tears a cross off the wall and pray-swears at the first zombie they meet; the over-sexed, easygoing promiscuity of the Cuban male; and the nonchalant attitude of Havana’s operators. At one point, while stealing rum from a Ron Mulata truck, the motley crew sees an old man in a wheelchair, and Juan, pushed to be a better role model by his daughter’s presence, tells Lázaro and Vladi California to help him. When he next turns around, they roll the heavy boxes of rum in the wheelchair, having fed the old man to the zombies nearby.

The plot unfolds quickly, the jokes are witty and well-translated, and the gore is campy. Suddenly, it feels like Havana is the only logical scene for any rendering of a phenomenon that takes everything you know and love and turns it into something ominous.

But the outlook has gotten bad, we learn, when the propaganda peters out, when zombies overtake Cuba and the nightly state-run news channel no longer reports that “the dissident attack is fully under control; you can all now return to your jobs with utter confidence in the Cuban revolution.” The crew plans to leave, even Juan, who’s said he won’t go to Miami because you have to work there, and besides, he likes it in Havana. Cuba is paradise; more, it’s where he’s from. Still, he looks at his young daughter, so young and beautiful and so much promise and life ahead of her, a shame to let her become a flesh-eating zombie—and so he spearheads the making of a boat in which to head north across the sea, the glimmering transparent ocean that filled the movie’s first frame. The boat is made from a stereotypical Cuban jalopy, the cars that came South from the States more than half a century ago, maybe even a Chevy. But Juan doesn’t jump into it. He waves goodbye to Camila and Lázaro before he wades back toward the malecón. It’s his home, and he wouldn’t know what to do anywhere else.

Una Noche, another new film by a young director about contemporary Cuba, takes place in a very different Havana: The sun is vivid but menacing, severe and restless. There’s not much to laugh about here, not much tenderness. This is a city that closes in on its young.

Teenaged Lila, played by Anailín de la Rúa de la Torre, vaguely knew that people risked death to get to Miami by raft, but “I never imagined someone would try to leave me,” she says at the start of the film. Her twin brother and best friend, Elio (Javier Núñez Florián), who works with the flirtatious Raul (Dariel Arrechada) in the Hotel Nacional’s squalid kitchen, is planning a secret getaway. He and Raul are building a raft, and they collect materials for it like children on a scavenger hunt: inner tubes, wood, compasses, and glucose for the ride. Raul wants to join his father, of whom he knows little, just that he is in Miami. His mythic presence promises Raul an easier, more glamorous life compared to the quick colloquial banter of the hot streets of Cuba, the sharp edges of teen angst.

When a tourist, brought home by Raul’s prostitute mother, hurts himself in their cave of a home and blames Raul for the ‘assault,’ the police begin to hunt him down. The cops begin showing up at work and his home and in the streets, asking questions and making threats. Now, Raul tells Elio, they can’t wait. They have to leave. And so begins the titular night, in which Lila will learn of her beloved brother’s plot and impetuously jump into the raft with them.

From her first visit to Havana, Mulloy, who is from London, wanted to make a movie there. While sitting on the malecón one afternoon on that first post-college trip, she told a theaterful of viewers at Q&A session at the Tribeca Film Festival, a ten year-old boy told her the story of a trio of young Havanans whose story shares some characteristics with the one she created for Lila and Elio.

That Havana siezed Mulloy’s imagination is evident: The shots are lush, lingering on the extraordinary azure and peach of the sky, capturing the stiff, cool sensation of wet clothing on hot limbs and the temptation of leaping into the ocean off the malecón. The pacing is at once languid and relentless, and the camera is often trained on the subtly expressive faces of the actors. Mulloy filmed Una Noche in locations that hadn’t been used in other movies, and hers is a gritty, fresh city of public parks and back alleys that Lila and Elio sprint through with ease—there are just a handful of indulgent sweeps across the sepia-toned rooftops of Old Havana. This Havana is of crowded apartments, of bare foam mattresses and dirty sheets wafting in the air to separate sleeping spaces, of rickety balconies and shoddy paint jobs.

It’s not a place that many would return to or stay in, and not just for aesthetic reasons. Love and sex are menacing here, the only way not only to withdraw from droning daily life, but to get what you want; the community offers little but cruelty, persecution and hustling. Toward the end, this cynicism begins to overwhelm. Why Raul must traipse through the city to buy his mother black market anti-retroviral medication goes unexplained and feels gratuitous — in reality, the state healthcare system would provide them to her for free. Between Raul, his mother, Elio, his adulterous father, the woman who trades Raul a digital camera for a depraved sexual encounter, the boy who masturbates while spying on Lila, and more, Mulloy doesn’t seem to give Cubans credit for many emotions apart from the carnal.

The two stars of Una Noche never showed up at the film’s premiere last month at the Tribeca Film Festival, where Mulloy won the distinction of best new narrative director for the film. Instead, Núñez Florián and de la Rúa de la Torre, both 20 and now a couple, disappeared into Miami en route to New York after slipping away from Arrechada and the film’s producer. They’ll seek political asylum. Arrechada, whose Raul was so convincingly desperate to leave, spent a few days in New York speaking to the press, defending his decision to return to Cuba, where he will rejoin his family, friends, and girlfriend. He accepted one of the film festival’s top honors—Arrechada and Núñez Florián shared the award for best actor in a narrative film—alone. Elio and Lila finally made their way to Miami, if only in the minds of the young actors who played them.

Julia Cooke

Julia Cooke's essays and reporting have appeared in A Public Space, Salon, Tin House, Smithsonian, Best American Travel Writing, and Virginia Quarterly Review, where she is a contributing editor. She is the author of The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba (Seal Press, 2014), narrative nonfiction on youth culture in post-Fidel Havana; and Come Fly the World: The Jet-Age Story of the Women of Pan Am (Houghton Mifflin, March 2021), a nonfiction account of the lives of international stewardesses of the 1960s and 70s.

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