HAVANA — The hottest ticket in Havana is a gory, campy zombie flick with a wicked sense of humor about Cuba's obsessive relations with the United States, one that revels in islanders' knack for making the best of things even when everything around you – buildings, streets, human limbs – is falling to pieces.
Audiences thronged movie houses this week to catch screenings of "Juan of the Dead," or "Juan de los Muertos" in the original Spanish, and organizers had to hastily add extra midnight screenings to accommodate the crush.
The Charles Chaplin Cinema bustled with several hundred eager spectators who stormed the doors once they opened Thursday night. And that was just those with special connections: journalists, family and friends of people involved in the movie, workers linked to Cuba's film institute. Hundreds more lined up around the block outside.
"Zombies in Havana, don't you want to see that?" writer-director Alejandro Brugues said after the screening as he fielded calls on his cell phone and congratulatory hugs from friends and family.
Brugues said he was "euphoric" to see the crowds in the streets and credited it to the movie's first-of-its kind nature for Cuba, whose films tend to be low-budget affairs about ordinary life.
"We don't do much action cinema," he said. "That's something that should change. We should start doing it."
Trailers for the movie have circulated in the year since it was filmed, creating a buzz on the streets even before the lights went down.
Yasumari Alvarez, a Cuban film institute employee who was not involved in the production, said she was drawn by the novelty of a homegrown production, albeit with Spanish financing, that uses computer-generated effects to transform the Cuban capital.
It's no spoiler to reveal that even in a city where many buildings are already crumbling, a zombie apocalypse does not change the skyline for the better.
"It's the first Cuban film with special effects. All Havana is destroyed, with zombies in the streets," said Alvarez.
While outright political dissent is not tolerated by Cuba's Communist-run government, artists and intellectuals have always enjoyed a measure of freedom, especially when the barbs come wrapped in humor. Juan of the Dead's edginess is on display from the beginning shot, which shows a sun-drenched Juan reclining on a fishing raft off Havana's famous seafront promenade, known as the Malecon.
His sidekick, Lazaro, asks Juan if he's ever thought of attempting the dangerous crossing to Miami. No, Juan replies, because then I'd have to work.
Suddenly the movie springs into action as a decaying zombie bursts through the surf, only to be felled by Lazaro with a harpoon through the eye.
"This stays between us," the two friends agree.
As attacks by the flesh-eating undead mount, the government keeps insisting on nightly newscasts that they are not reanimated corpses but dissident agitators in league with the "empire," an official label for the United States. Desperate people paddle off from the Malecon on rickety watercraft in a clear reference to Cuban raft crises.
When Juan, a rail-thin Don Quixote-like figure, and Lazaro, a stouter Sancho Panza type, gather neighbors on their rooftop to teach self-defense techniques, Juan tells them this is nothing they don't already know how to deal with.
Only "this time the enemy is not the Yankees, but a real enemy and they're among us," Juan says.
Together they form a zombie wrecking crew with a business plan, charging Havana residents to "dispose of your loved ones." Sometimes, in confused melees, the clients fare no better than the zombies.
Yet until a news anchor disappears in a spray of blood on a live broadcast, authorities continue to insist that it's all a Yankee plot and everything is under control.
By then there are no clients left and it's clear there's nothing to do but flee. Juan, together with his half-Spanish daughter, Lazaro and Lazaro's son California, formulate a wild plan to escape the city that is an homage to Cubans' famous capacity to invent a makeshift solution to any problem.
Brugues insisted that his movie is not political, despite the jabs that deflate the official-speak common in the state-run media.
"Politics is bigger than me, it's way over my head," he said.