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Every day until Halloween, The Hollywood Reporter will be speaking to a notable horror director. Previously in this series: ‘V/H/S: Viral’s’ Marcel Sarmiento.
Juan of the Dead is Cuba’s first zombie movie, and its director, Alejandro Brugués, tells The Hollywood Reporter it was inspired by a joke he cracked while walking around Havana. People on the streets “kind of looked like zombies,” he says. “I said to [my producer], ‘we could make a film, a zombie film, with real people here in the streets and we wouldn’t even need make-up.'”
“I looked at him and said, ‘you know what, that’s going to be my next project,'” says Brugués. “Out of that joke, I had a theme, a subtext. I had everything.”
Brugués, who directed 2011’s Juan and his 2006 first film Personal Belongings in Cuba but recently moved to Los Angeles, says he likes horror with elements of comedy and social commentary, like the combination he crafted in Juan. He’s bringing humor to his next directorial entry, the segment E is for Equilibrium in the horror anthology sequel The ABCs of Death 2, which will be released theatrically on Halloween.
The director tells THR his favorite zombie movie (hint: it’s a zom-com) and how to shoot horror on a budget.
How’d you come up with your ABCs of Death 2 segment?
I’d never done a short film. When they got in touch with me I was still in Cuba and then I moved to the US, and it was a huge challenge. You don’t have much budget, so it was like, what can I do in a place where I still don’t have my production company, my crew. Here, I didn’t know anyone. I said, “boy, it’s not a budget where I can really do whatever,” which is great. It’s one of the good things about the series.
I said, “let’s do something simple, but try to put as much story as we can in in here.” They asked me, “do you want to do comedy or horror,” and I said, “let me stick with comedy,” because I’d never done a short. “Let me stick with what I know.” I tried to do something funny, but it has lots of layers. I think it also has a theme and a metaphor.
Why do you think horror and comedy work well together?
I think the thing is that horror works by creating tension and then releasing it, and I think the comedy is an amazing way to release that tension. It’s like an orgasm for the audience. Horror is supposed to be like a rollercoaster, it’s supposed to create the tension, and with pure horror, the release is a jump. When it’s a horror-comedy, you can also laugh. You can laugh at how hilarious it was to be scared.
It’s great for us filmmakers. I think it’s a problem for people who have to sell the films, but not for the audience. When you see films at festivals, the one that are usually the audience’s favorites are horror-comedies. In my year [with Juan] we got a lot of audiences awards, which are my favorites. This year, one film that’s doing great is What We Do in the Shadows, which is amazing. It’s so funny.
But you also try to layer horror with metaphor and social significance. Do you find horror works well to convey that kind of thematic material?
I think that’s the best thing about horror, that it can serve as a commentary on current issues. It’s great for metaphors and subtext. I understand sometimes you just want to have fun and make a horror film because it’s fun, but I think a horror movie without a subtext is lifeless. What really breathes life into horror is what it really speaks to.
I don’t think there’s the concern that fewer films are having that now; if you look at the history of horror films, it’s always been the same. You have the ones that stand out, the classics, that have subtext and touch deeper issues. But for each one of those, you have 20 that don’t, and some of those are also good.
What do you think makes great horror writing or directing?
You have to let the dread, the mood, invade you. When I’m writing something about horror, I’m the jumpiest person. I have to tell my wife not to come and talk to me because I’m going to have a heart attack. When you’re shooting and editing, too, you have to feel that tension. For example, in Juan of the Dead, we had some set pieces that involved 300 zombies, and some scenes just in a car or a room, and in both cases, it’s about the suspense. It’s not the size that matters, it’s what you make of it.
There’s something that’s happening to me, and I hope it’s a phase and not that I’m getting older: Now, what really scares me are real-life monsters. Not the vampires or zombies, but the evil that man is capable of doing.
Juan of the Dead / Courtesy Alejandro Brugués
You must have watched a lot of zombie movies before and while shooting Juan. Which are your favorites?
When I was doing Juan, I saw everything. After doing my film, I kind of don’t watch them anymore, because I know how they do the prosthetics and how they do everything. It kind of took the magic out of it. But I love Day of the Dead, and obviously the comedies, like Brain Dead. Shaun of the Dead is probably my favorite zombie film ever. I used to love them all. I can’t watch them much anymore.
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