The mockumentary form of movie has been around for quite a while with probably one of the earliest that I know of being Meet The Ruttles, an inspired take-off on The Beatles by Eric Idle and friends. Since then the genre has gained in popularity, especially when Rob Reiner's This Is Spinal Tap became such a commercial success, and has proven a great vehicle for directors wishing to take a satirical look at certain elements of society.
Zombies have always been popular fodder for horror movies, and in recent years they've been popping up even more frequently, from comedies like Shaun Of The Dead to apocalyptic visions of the future as depicted by the Resident Evil franchise. So I guess it was only a matter of time before somebody decided to put the two together and make a mockumentary about zombies. The potential for satire in such a venture seems limitless, so I was interested in seeing what the creators of American Zombie, from Cinema Libre Studio, were able to come up with.
Co-directed by Grace Lee and John Solomon, who also appear in the movie playing themselves, the movie traces a film crew shooting a documentary about zombies living in the Los Angeles area. We follow them around as they interview experts in the field: a zombie historian, a zombie psychiatrist, and the head of the zombie research institute. From these interviews we find out that yes indeed it is a virus that causes zombies to come back to life at the moment of death and that the virus is spread through the saliva of a zombie when administered by a bite. It also seems that the majority of naturally occurring zombies, not those who have the virus transferred to them by being bitten, died a violent death.
The film crew also get to know four local zombies and follow them around. Ivan (played by Austin Basis) works in a convenience store and comes across like your typical slacker, Judy (Suzy Nakamura) works as a customer service rep for an organic foods company and is doing her best to pass as normal, Lisa (Jane Edith Wilson) is a florist with a thing for funeral arrangements and is desperate to find out who she was before she died and was reborn as a zombie, and Joel (Al Vicente) who is an activist working on gaining zombies rights as citizens.
Obviously the undead face all the problems of anybody whose been declared dead. There's the whole lack of identification thing that makes it difficult to get credit, rent an apartment, or get even basic health insurance. Of course zombies have their own distinct health issues – rotting tissue, the occasional oozing sore, and those pesky maggots. They also go through a difficult period of dislocation when they first re-animate, not knowing who they are, where they are, and need quite a bit of assistance in becoming oriented to their new world. While some of them are able to eventually "pass" as human, an equal number of them never advance past the stereotype perpetrated by horror movies of the shuffling, mindless creature, and other's evolution seems to get stuck after developing only the most basic of communication skills.
The two filmmakers are taking widely different approaches to the gathering of material. While Grace is content with sitting back and observing the daily activities of their subjects and acts with the utmost professionalism, John is looking for the sensationalist angle. He obsesses about whether or not they might be eating human flesh, and is constantly on the look out for any indications of "horror movie" behaviour.
As long as the movie sticks to being the mockumentary about zombies it is a darkly humorous look at a minority group's struggle to get by in a world that's much hostile to their kind. Their are those who are more than willing to exploit their unique abilities, as is shown by the sweatshop owner the crew interviews. Zombies are great workers because they never need to sleep, take bathroom breaks, and – especially the lower functioning ones – are perfect for doing mindless repetitive work. They've been a real boon, the guy says, because even illegal immigrants from Mexico have grown too smart to do the type of work he needs doing for the money he's willing to pay.
Unfortunately the filmmakers decided to switch into Blair Witch mode for the last third of the movie, and brought the film down to the level of a horror movie that takes away from the satire and black humour they had established. While it is being advertised as a "blurring the lines between reality and fiction", to my mind they just are making another cheap horror movie. It also doesn't work. The faux documentary feel of the movie had been too well established by the obvious tongue in cheek interviews with the zombie "experts" for the switch to "reality" to be anything but strained.
In the opening sequences of the movie Shaun Of The Dead we are treated to shots of people doing drudge jobs, shuffling along the street listening to their headphones, and just generally going about their business in typical mindless fashion. The makers of American Zombie could have made a movie that followed that avenue, but instead chose to make just another horror movie. What could have been something quite original resorted to falling back on the same old same old.
The DVD of American Zombie comes with a behind the scenes making of featurette, and is in wide screen format. It's available in universal region code and with regular stereo sound. You can order a copy directly from Cinema Libre Studio or the movie's web site.