American Zombie

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 03/28/08 00:00:00

"Needs More Brains and Guts!"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

“American Zombie” is a mockumentary that purports to take viewers on a tour of the ever-growing zombie population of Los Angeles by following around four disparate members of the non-living community–the kind of film that might have resulted if Christopher Guest had inexplicably been hired to do “Resident Evil 4.” As premises go, this is certainly an attention-grabber and it seems like such an obvious winner that as you sit down to watch it, you may be wondering to yourself how it is that no one else ever managed to come up with the idea despite the recent proliferation of both zombie extravaganzas and faux-documentaries. Before too long, however, you will quickly come to understand why–it is essentially a one-joke premise and while it might have played beautifully as a 30-minute short subject, there just isn’t enough to it to sustain itself as a 90-minute feature.

We learn early on that under certain circumstances, a sudden and violent death can release a long-dormant virus into the systems of the recently deceased and bring them back to life, albeit with no memory of their previous existence and in forms ranging from feral to highly functioning. We are soon introduced to four zombies who represent a cross-section of the contemporary undead experience. Ivan (Austin Basis) is a twenty-something slacker who spends his nights working in a convenience store and his days skateboarding and putting together his zombie zine (“American Zombie,” naturally) with his corpse-chaser girlfriend. Judy (Suzy Nakamura) is a chirpy and eternally cheerful sort who is healthy-looking enough to pass for living and who obsesses over her ever-expanding collection of scrapbooks while searching for the (living) man of her dreams. Joel (Al Vincente) is a rabble-rousing community organizer who has formed Z.A.G. (Zombie Advocacy Group) in an effort to bring the undead together to fight for their non-human rights. Finally, there is Lisa (Jane Edith Wilson), a mousy woman who works as a florist specializing in funeral services, no doubt because it is something that she may never experience unless someone decides to crush her skull, and who dabbles in art projects whose success can be determined when she claims to work in both abstract and representation images and observers still have to ask which mode a particular piece belongs to.

Their everyday existence is observed through the cameras of a pair of documentarians–the straightforward and sensible Grace Lee (played by Grace Lee, the film’s actual co-writer/director and a real-life documentarian) and the more sensationalistic John Solomon (John Solomon)–and as the filming begins, the two are at odds about the shape that the project should take; Grace wants to present a representational portrait of the community while John tries to hype things up with elaborate storyboards and constantly pressing his interview subjects about whether or not they actually eat human flesh. Although Grace rebukes him for asking such tasteless and pandering questions, the fact of the matter is that the zombies play a lot of word games (“What about flesh-eating humans?”) that never quite get around to answering that question one way or another. Things comes to a head during “Live Dead,” an annual zombie-only retreat that the filmmakers are grudgingly given permission to film, only to be barred from filming during the events of the final evening. In true guerilla fashion, Grace and John sneak to the outskirts with a camera and film the kind of activities that may call for a complete rethinking of the whole documentary project.

You don’t have to be a sociologist to quickly detect that Lee and co-writer Rebecca Sonnenshine are using zombieism as a way of exploring how society treats its more marginalized and disenfranchised members–although it most closely ties in with the current immigration debate (especially in the ways that the never-sleeping zombies are exploited by unscrupulous business owners as a source of cheap and uncomplaining labor), one can also find parallels with the homeless and AIDS communities as well. The trouble is that, as anyone who has seen any of George A. Romero’s brilliant “Dead” films (including the recent “Diary of the Dead,” which also offers up its zombie thrills through a faux-documentary framework) or Edgar Wright’s hilarious “Shaun of the Dead” can testify, the idea of using the undead as a method for social commentary is hardly a new and inventive concept. However, Lee seems to think that she has hit on some brilliant new vein of social satire when all she is doing is merely rehashing stuff without offering enough of a unique spin of her own to make it distinctive. You keep waiting for it to break out on its own and while it does hit a few unique targets (such as a look at the zombie art scene, in which all of the works of art resemble voids), most of the satirical touches feel as fresh and lively as the lion’s share of the cast.

The real problem with “American Zombie” is that while it has a reasonably nifty premise, it doesn’t really have much of an idea of how to develop it into a story that will sustain a feature-length running time. Once the premise has been established, the film essentially becomes an endless series of variations on the same joke that eventually wears out its welcome. Even that isn’t enough to get the film to the end credits so the storyline begins giving equal weight to the behind-the-scenes struggle between Grace and John to control the direction of the film–this stuff is marginally more interesting but again, a self-referential and satirical look at the myriad ways in which an independent film can spin out of control is hardly the freshest of comedic conceits. Before long, this particular narrative thread runs dry as well and the film eventually concludes with a series of violent and disjointed scenes that contain more than a whiff of utter desperation and which weirdly seem to subvert the messages that the rest of the proceedings are theoretically trying to convey. (Frankly, the entire closing sequence feels as if another director were brought in at the last moment to punch things up, possibly at the behest of financiers horrified to discover that they had put their money into a zombie film without any traditional zombie action to speak of.)

I don’t want to come down too hard on “American Zombie” because it isn’t completely terrible–the performances are pretty good and a few of the more off-hand jokes are very funny (I love the bit where a preacher tries to win over the undead by asserting that “Jesus was the first zombie”). However, for the most part, the humor is so dry and low-key as to be nearly undetectable and the whole enterprise will merely remind most viewers of other, better entries in the subgenre of knowing satires involving the living dead. My guess is that the ideal audience member for this film is someone who has never seen the likes of “Shaun of the Dead” or the Romero epics–from their perspective, the satirical aspects might come across as fresher and funnier than they really are. Of course, the idea that someone who has avoided those films–and presumably all the other zombie movies to have appeared over the years–would suddenly decide to fork over their hard-earned money to see a film entitled “American Zombie” is actually funnier than anything on display in “American Zombie.”

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