As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve been lurking at the Toronto After Dark film festival’s summer screenings (if you’re in the GTA there’s still a chance to catch the second night of screenings on July 11 – Detention and V/H/S). Toronto After Dark is a horror and genre film festival oozing with gobs of monster and rpg inspiration. Most of the films the festival showcases won’t see wide release – so in addition to extracting some rpg goodness from each movie, I’ll also give them a bit of a critique, so fellow gamers can know what they need to track down and what to avoid. I’ll try and keep spoilers to an absolute minimum.
Roleplaying games helped foster an unhealthy love of monsters, which hooked me at an early age to genre films, which in turn help to inform my tabletop games (in a weird kind of feedback loop). This ongoing series of articles takes these influences and mashes them together to create a strange hybrid I call It Came from the DVR (although I seem to be in the theatre more often than in front of the television, but I’m not complaining – they have better snacks).
In Havana, ne’er-do-wells Juan and Lazaro find themselves in the middle of a zombie outbreak sweeping across Cuba. Amid the chaos, Juan tries to make amends to his estranged daughter, survive, and if he plays his cards right, maybe even turn a profit while he does it.
Surprisingly Fresh for a Film about Walking Corpses
Juan of the Dead surprises on many levels – and keeps you laughing while it does it. The first thing I noticed was how good it looks. Cuba doesn’t export a lot of movies, so walking into Juan I had every expectation that a zombie flick from Cuba would out of necessity have to be put together with bubble-gum and stock footage. It turns out my assumptions were completely unfounded (or Cuba has some pretty awesome magic bubble-gum). The zombie make-up looks great, there is ample blood (some of it CGI but there’s enough practical gore to satisfy horror lovers), and filmmaker Alejandro Brugues manages to use the visual language of classic zombie films (machetes, baseball bats, and crouching undead feasting on the entrails of the fallen) while expanding the repertoire with some really creative and fun kills (both zombie and human). The film had the support of the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC) so, in addition to the better than expected cinematography Brugues also had access to many of Havana’s most recognized landmarks which provided some beautiful visuals all their own.
The involvement of the Cuban government is surprising not just because Juan is a horror-comedy, but also because a lot of its humor is driven by political satire (in the film, government officials refuse to recognize the zombies as undead, calling them ‘political dissidents’ instead). Perhaps the film’s political grumbling is palatable when mixed with a heavy dose of physical comedy, genre commentary (after they realize what they’re up against, the main characters have a great conversation about the nature of the undead), and general zom-com fun and silliness. I find the context in which the film was made fascinating. It adds a tension to the whole thing that works very well with the suspense and dread inherent in any apocalyptic tale (even a comedy).
The group of misfits at the film’s core are funny and instantly likeable, in spite of their sometimes despicable actions and questionable personalities. In another context they might easily be villains, but the script’s humor and the actors’ charisma are enough to charm the viewer into almost liking the characters because of their failings (something viewers of Shameless will be familiar with).
After great movies like Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland and Deadheads, I was worried the sub-genre would run out of juice, but Juan of the Dead’s final surprise is that zombie comedies still have fresh things to say and new ways to entertain. Sure there’s some overlap (and I caught a great shout out to Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive), but no more than between any given group of romantic comedies. Juan of the Dead is more than just the Cuban take on the zom-com (although it is also very much that), it’s also a film about fatherhood. Through Juan’s relationship with his daughter, Brugues explores the competing interests of being your own man, doing what you need to do to survive and transforming into the kind of role model our children want us to be (all while never taking itself seriously).
Juan of the Dead proves the zom-com is here to stay. I highly recommend this film – there are plenty of brains yet to be eaten and laughs to be had at a crumbling civilization’s expense.
Plot twists (and back stories) involving the PCs’ parents are familiar (and fun) territory when it comes to ‘campaign complications’. Juan of the Dead (and my own steadily growing age) got me thinking in a slightly different direction. What if, like the main character of the film, the PCs’ lives are complicated by the appearance of an estranged child?
Of course this campaign complication comes with its own unique obstacle – the small matter of the child’s origin. If the player is willing to have their PC begin the campaign a little older than most starting characters, then it’s easy to introduce the child as an established part of the character’s backstory. If not, it’s easy to imagine the wild adventuring lifestyle producing an unplanned child or two at some point in a PC’s career (what with tempting succubi, charming assassins and amorous demigods running around). When the campaign calls, settling down to be a responsible parent is not in the cards (and is about as fun to role-play as operating a fruit stand), and the friction begins.
The storytelling possibilities for this kind of complication are near limitless, and if the player is willing to go along with it, can provide a lot of drama, comedy, and fun at the table. Here are a few possibilities:
- After hauling chests full of a slain dragon’s hoard back to town, one of the PC’s is tracked down by their bastard daughter, who immediately demands her right to inheritance.
- A larcenous and chaotic PC’s son is a devout worshipper of St. Cuthbert (or other Lawful deity), who checks up on his parent from time to time in order to make sure they remain ‘on the straight and narrow’.
- The PC’s daughter has gotten herself involved in the Cult of Elemental Evil (or some other villainous organization). Is she a lost cause or can the PC repair their relationship and convince her to abandon her wicked way of life?
- One of the PC’s is confronted by their son, who has just married into a wealthy and powerful family. He is embarrassed by his parent’s adventuring life and asks the character to retire or change their name. If they are aren’t willing to do either he uses his newfound coin and influence to ‘convince’ them to do so.
One of the things I really like about complications involving children is that even in an antagonistic situation; combat isn’t always the easy choice. I once pitted my gaming group’s party against a band of wild orphans, led by a sorcerous twelve year old (she attacked with animated toys). It was obvious to the players that although they were suffering damage, the children were merely acting out, their leader in the throes of a fierce tantrum. Since the PCs didn’t want to have the slaughter of children on their heads, subdual, diplomacy and bribery were the strategies of the day.
Variant Zombies for Pathfinder
Juan of the Dead isn’t just about parents and their kids; there are also quite a few zombies – the classic kind of zombie that doesn’t die unless you shoot it in the head. I really like the zombies that are presented in the Bestiary for Pathfinder. I think the fast zombie and plague zombie variants that are included go a long way to bringing the D&D zombie more in line with the tropes of horror cinema. At the risk of setting off an edition war (not here please, I like both editions plenty) though, I think that the 4e Monster Manual may have done it better. In this edition of the game, zombies are especially vulnerable to critical hits, which just screams ‘shoot it in the head’ to me. Fortunately, it isn’t hard to bring that mechanic into Pathfinder via a variant zombie simple template. I even think it’s possible to improve on the 4e design by emphasizing how hard the walking dead are to kill unless you destroy their brain.
“Just shoot them in the head! They seem to go down permanently when you shoot them in the head.”
Some zombies are possessed with a particularly relentless and evil will. These creatures shrug off most wounds, and only complete bodily destruction or the obliteration of their putrid brain can stop them from their pursuit of the flesh of the living.
Defensive Abilities: An unrelenting zombie gains DR 10/-. This ability replaces DR 5/slashing.
Weaknesses: An unrelenting zombie gains the following weakness.
Critical Vulnerability (Ex): A confirmed critical hit roll against an unrelenting zombie destroys the monster’s brain, reducing it immediately to 0 hit points. Additionally, any attack against the unrelenting zombie with extra sneak attack damage applied, bypasses the zombie’s damage reduction.
When combined with the plague zombie simple template (minus the change to DR), I think you’ve got the perfect Romero (or Juan) style zombie for Pathfinder. With both templates applied, add +1 to the creature’s CR.