American Zombie opens this weekend at the Laemmle Sunset 5 in Los Angeles. Visit the American Zombie website to download a coupon that will get you a ticket for just six bucks.
American Zombie really bummed me out because it shows how completely awful George Romero’s latest film, Diary of the Dead,
really is. Granted, they’re not so subtly different takes on the same
concept – fake documentaries about zombies – but it’s how the two
directors approach the material that makes a world of difference. In
Romero’s film the fake documentary is a gimmick; there’s nothing in
that movie that couldn’t have been done as just a conventional
narrative zombie movie, and the film itself just keeps on going out of
its way to remind you that this is nothing like any documentary footage
that you’ve ever seen before. Grace Lee, the director (and co-star) of American Zombie, first rose to prominence as a documentary filmmaker with The Grace Lee Project,
and she understands the narrative language of documentaries and how to
use them for storytelling. That means that her film feels like it could
be an actual doc – with some not quite successful attempts to build
Of course the two films are, despite the similarity in possible IMDB keywords, quite different. Romero is revisiting Night of the Living Dead,
having student filmmakers capture the first days of the zombie plague.
Lee, on the other hand, has taken the zombie archetype that Romero
invented and, with a few judicious tweaks, created a world where the
zombies live among us, lower class citizens who have been maligned in
film and folklore. Interestingly, both films do the same things with
zombies in a meta way: they each essentially make the subtext of the
zombie become text, but while Romero does it with ham handed dialogue
and voice over, Lee does it with wit and a slight wink of the eye.
American Zombie is the latest in a trend of zombie films that attempt to recontextualize
and tinker with the meaning and the iconography of the ghoul. It’s sort
of what was happening with the vampire for the last twenty years, where
filmmakers would play with bits and pieces of the mythology of the vamp
to make new statements. It would take a real commitment to see every
zombie movie made – IMDB
lists over 100 for the last two years alone – but the vast majority of
zombie films seem happy to leave the basics of the undead alone and
instead tinker with things like setting and speed. In American Zombie the living dead (or revenants,
as they’re officially called) aren’t the mindless flesh eaters that we
know – they’re regular people, just like us, who happen to have
acquired a virus that re-animated them upon death. Very slowly
decomposing, the zombies try to live lives as normal as possible in a
world that won’t let them get credit cards, get married or have a
Filmmaker John Solomon (played by filmmaker John Solomon) sees that his
film school pal Grace Lee has been making a name for herself with
documentaries. He convinces her that the lives of zombies in Los
Angeles is fertile ground for a film, and they team up despite the fact
that they’re coming from very different places. John fancies himself an
investigative journalist, although he seems much more of a
sensationalist, while Grace is looking to make a more observational
film. John’s constantly getting in the faces of their subjects – do
zombies eat human flesh is the question he keeps asking – while Grace
wants to hang back and let the camera capture what it will.
They have four very different subjects: Ivan is a zombie working at a
convenience store who makes photocopies of a ‘zine (zombies have not
yet embraced the interweb, I take it) and whose girlfriend is a human,
an avowed ‘zombie chaser.’ Judy is a zombie in denial, a woman who
tries to live a normal life including a healthy, vegan diet and who has
dreams of marrying a human and adopting kids. Lisa, meanwhile, makes
funeral bouquets and is desperately jealous of those allowed to die;
she has no memory of her life pre-zombie and obsesses over who she was.
Finally there’s Joel, a zombie community organizer and leader of ZAG,
the Zombie Activist Group. Their stories all come together at Live
Dead, a three day Burning Man-like festival that ZAG organizes where
humans are verboten. Of course the doc crew comes along and makes the
prerequisite startling discovery.
Zombies are my favorite monster because they can be used to say
anything about society, and Lee does exactly that – she makes her
zombies specific enough that we can understand them but vague enough
that we can see in them any minority group. Each of the documentary’s
subjects react to their zombification very differently, and again this
becomes a terrific prism through which Lee can look at all sorts of
societal issues – and which makes the ending of the film all the more
discomfiting. I won’t spoil where the film goes (although if you’ve
ever seen a zombie movie you sort of have an idea, but also sort of
don’t), but it’s certainly harder to sympathize with the zombies when
all is said and done. That said, American Zombie is equal opportunity when it comes to painting its characters poorly; when one of the film crew becomes zombified they leave him behind in a scene re-enacting how LA area hospitals were caught on camera illegally dumping homeless patients. In some ways Lee’s vision may be even more cynical than Romero’s, which has been softening in each Dead film, allowing more and more people to survive each time.
Actually, I want to go on a small tangent here. While I think that Lee is presenting her zombies in such a way as to make them Rorschach blots into which we can read whatever we like, I’m reading a look at Muslims in the post-9/11 world. As a liberal I’ve found that Islamic fundamentalists test the limits of my ability to be tolerant – the hijab, for instance, is simply a sign of oppression and has no place in a free society (well, I mean it’s a free society so you can wear what you like, but hopefully you get my drift here). Sure, it’s not polite to ask zombies about eating human flesh… but zombies eat human flesh. And not every zombie is a flesh eater like not every Muslim is a terrorist, but when you start pretending that no zombies eat human flesh you might be in a lot of trouble. Although as Joel the activist says when asked if there are flesh eating zombies: ‘Are there flesh eating humans?’ The more I think about it the more I like the way that Lee ends the film, forcing us to ask just how tolerant we want to be while in the very last shot of the movie reminding us why we should be tolerant after all.
Unfortunately American Zombie is, even at just about 90
minutes, a little too long. While the ‘joke’ doesn’t get old, Lee and
co-writer Rebecca Sonnenshine hit a number of slow, logy patches and
the film struggles to hold your attention. Which is too bad, as they
have created a fascinating and uniquely detailed world and filled it
with mostly interesting characters. They just seem to have a half hour
more film than they need.
Still, even for its (fairly minor) faults, American Zombie is
a film that reinvigorated my interest in not just mockumentaries but
zombie movies, a genre so oversaturated that I figured it was about
done. While we’re beseiged with zombie films as mindless as their
monsters, American Zombie proves that there’s still lots of humor and insight to be found in the walking dead.