About 12 years ago, I took a film studies course at Stony Brook University that focused on documentaries. I only took it because it filled a requirement for my English major. Going in, I figured it would be a boring course, in which I’d watch a number of thoroughly dull movies. It turned out it was actually a very interesting class, that taught me to be more analytical when I watched movies. So when I sat down to watch the mockumentary American Zombie, I thought of that class and watched the movie as if it were an actual doc.
And for the first 2/3 of the film, it functioned exactly like the docs I’d seen a dozen years back in that film studies class. The best of those docs had two things going for them: they followed interesting people, and through doing so put forth a powerful message. Even if the subject being documented was boring, per se, selling encyclopedias, interviews with a bunch of salesman at varying levels of success could make that world seem compelling and sad. Unfortunately, this “doc” focuses on four really boring high functioning “revenants” (which is a misnomer, as the word actually means “ghosts”). There’s Ivan, the overweight Goth slacker who works at a convenience store and writes a zombie fanzine; Judy, who searches unsuccessfully for love as she assembles photo albums to document everything in her life; Joel, who leads ZAG, a pro-active zombies’ rights group; and Lisa, an unhinged artist who makes string art as she tries to discover her human origins. All of these characters are outsiders; where is the football player, the model, the corporate executive? I applaud director Grace Lee for promoting the idea that those who return are outsiders; and in their new condition, they’re farther outside than ever. But my God, could these four be any more dull? I would think if zombies existed, as this “doc” tells us they do, Lee could find four that were a little more edgy and exciting. Instead her subjects are the very definition of mundane. This cripples the film, as it did with a few of the docs I watched in that college course.
And what of the message? At first, that seems a little tangled. Lee appears in the doc as herself, and she’s intent to show the world that zombies are victims, who deserve a fair shake at life. But filmmaker John Solomon, her co-director, seems more concerned with showing people that zombies are a threat; he’s always looking for body parts in their refrigerators. These fears seem unfounded. True, the subjects are all more than a little weird, but they seem harmless to the point of meek. There’s also a compelling theme of black holes, a perfect metaphor for the zombies’ souls. Lee and Solomon should have followed through on that as their message, as it would have provided them with an intriguing focus.
And then, at the 2/3 mark, the message changes, and the whole documentary swerves off course, in both style and technique. Seeking entrance to Live Dead, a zombies-only festival, Lee and Solomon secure themselves limited access. The first two days commence in dreary fashion, with zombie hippies sharing in sing-alongs as if this were Woodstock. During the second night, things start to get all Blair Witchy, with shaky hand held camera work in night vision as some unknown force attacks the tent. The third day presents more mysteries, and that night the filmmakers capture something they consider shocking. From here, they try to wrap up the doc so they can present it to the public. Along the way, a few jolting turns occur, leading to a conclusion the film’s first hour would never have suggested.
Herein lie a multitude of problems. First, the “shocking” footage the filmmakers capture doesn’t really show anything shocking at all. How they come to the conclusion that something dangerous has happened is beyond me. Worse, the last 15 minutes clearly show that zombies are a threat to our safety and lives. As the whole first hour portrayed them as mundane and harmless, this sudden turn is preposterous; certainly Lee the character would not have edited her final product as such if the incidents in the last quarter hour had occurred. But the film’s biggest sin is what its ultimate message becomes: The Outsider in Society Is Dangerous. The message is socially irresponsible, and odd coming from Lee, a minority female documentary filmmaker.
The DVD for American Zombie comes with a number of extras. What’s labeled as a making of “documentary” is actually more correctly labeled a featurette. It’s a poorly organized 7 minutes of behind the scenes interviews that offer an incoherent look at the movie’s origins and production. Then there are two commentaries. On the first, Lee discusses the film with co-writer Rebecca Sonnenshine. Lee starts off talking about the film’s genesis, involving Sonnenshine’s dreams about being a zombie. The rest of the commentary functions as a nuts and bolts discussion of how and why the plot became what it was. The second contains comments from Lee and the four actors who played the doc’s lead zombies. They hold a decent conversation about character motivation and provide some good anecdotes from the production, but it’s a bit heavy with compliments for Lee and the genius of the film. These commentaries probably would have impressed me more had I enjoyed the movie itself. The film’s trailer sells the first 2/3 of the film without giving any real indication of where it will eventually lead. There’s also a PC Rom extra, but I can’t figure out what exactly it does. The disc also offers trailers for a number of Cinema Libre Studio releases, none of which seem too enticing. Beware: over the menus play two mind numbingly annoying punk tunes from the film.
As a movie, American Zombie is dull, plodding and confused in its message. As a faux documentary, the film also fails. Though it holds to the conventions of true documentary filmmaking for the first 2/3, it falls apart at the end, and provides a very dangerous final message. As a zombie enthusiast, I say pass on this one. As a guy who fondly remembers just how a college course taught him to analyze film better, unfortunately I say the same.
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