Documentary film as an art form has been around since Thomas Edison first cranked the handle of the motion picture camera and captured life-as-we-know it on the heretofore unknown medium of film. But it took, 1970’s sitcom star Rob Reiner and cohorts to fully capture the magic of what could be accomplished in comedy under the auspice of documentary film. Since THIS IS SPINAL TAP graced the silver screen in 1984, star Christopher Guest has virtually created a one man moviemaking machine churning out what has come to be known as the Mockumentary.
In that same sense a small band of filmmakers later took the idea of documentary as fiction into new territories with THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and THE ST. FRANCISVILLE EXPERIMENT. This blending of horror and reality was all presented in the light that the cases and facts involved in production were grounded in pure and undeniable fact. But as we all know now, and most suspected then, it was all just an elaborate hoax.
In 2005, UCLA film school graduate Grace Lee gave the world her documentary THE GRACE LEE PROJECT. Lee located women all across the country with the same name in an effort to address societal preconceptions about Asian-American females. So, you can imagine after that film and two other acclaimed works of non-fiction, shooting a zombie movie is an odd left-field turn for the respected filmmaker. But on further inspection, Lee and John Solomon—who play themselves in the film—are doing exactly that same thing in this project that they have all along…for the most part. Despite its obvious predecessors, AMERICAN ZOMBIE is not a mockumentary. It is a sociological look at a host of sensitive cultural subjects, ranging from ageism and sexism to harassment and bigotry, that just so happens to feature subjects that are members in the community of the living dead.
The film follows the lives of 4 highly functioning “Revenants” as they struggle with day-to-day things like job placement, housing rental and love in a world that has not yet decided to offer equal rights to all. Each of the individual zombie personalities addresses a different aspect of their struggle. Lisa (Jane Edith Wilson) is a spiritual florist who specializes in funeral arrangements and seems to long for the solemn rest of a peaceful death. Joel (Al Vicente) is the founder of Z.A.G. (Zombie Advocacy Group) and is determined to make sure his people get a fair shake at life. Ivan (Austin Basis) is a convenience store clerk who writes a ‘zine, has an odd girlfriend and generally passes through his version of life with as few aspirations as possible. Finally, we meet Judy (Suzy Nakamura), an Asian-American zombie who is still searching for true-love and a little piece of her dream life.
As the crew continues to follow the subjects through their daily lives, a dangerous rift is forming between Lee and Solomon. She desires to capture the struggles with a trained and objective eye. He, on the other hand, seems dead set on finding hidden caches of decomposing body parts strewn across the kitchen counters and bags of brains chilling in the vegetable drawers of their refrigerators. This clear break in ideals leads the filmmakers to redress their desires for shooting the documentary. Still as they proceed they learn of an annual zombie retreat titled “Live Dead”. A wilderness festival filled with fellow Revenants, Rock Music and Recreation. Determined to garner an invite to this exclusive and highly monitored event, the pair ultimately convince Joel to bring them along. Once they arrive and events begin to cull and uneasy air about them and the duo become more determined than ever to uncover the mysterious subculture that exists in the world of the zombie.
AMERICAN ZOMBIE is far from the perfect film. The set-up is long and the need for director Lee to make the project feel like a legitimate documentary causes the beginning to drag on a bit as the audience waits for something interesting to occur. Even with the need to dissect the lives of these people taking up better than half the film, the project still manages to work on a basic level. We can identify with the zombies and we feel a sense of moral outrage when we find mistreatment occurring in the community. In that manner, Lee succeeds admirably, and had she left the film as a serious look at our fear of the unknown using the undead as the catalysts for her observations, the film might have succeeded as a brilliant and lofty satire.
Where the problem occurs is in the final reel. Lee’s need to take the film to a conclusion that proves her nay saying partner right discredits the entirety of what comes before—in essence justifying the actions of everyone who mistreats the zombies. It’s a dangerous position for Lee to take even in a fictional setting and especially one in which she has cast herself and her fellow colleague as protagonists.
Now, before you get all bent out of shape, I recognize fiction when I see it. And I’m certainly not saying that I think people will call Lee a hypocrite. Oh yeah, and I know zombies aren’t real too! I don’t want to make it sound as if I disliked the film, but it’s a rare case where I have issue with determining the filmmaker’s intention. AMERICAN ZOMBIE is most definitely entertaining and given the right mindset slyly educational and bitingly (some pun intended) satirical. But the difficulty in categorizing the project is going to make it a tough sell to the masses, and that’s a shame, because Grace Lee looks to be a very promising young filmmaker.