Saturday, July 5, 2008

AMERICAN ZOMBIE (2007) d. Grace Lee

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

The “mockumentary” is exactly what the name implies, it is a fictionalized documentary meant to be amusing rather than informative. More important than how it is defined is how it is done. Making a “fictitious” documentary is an immense challenge. Since you are creating a work of fiction, the primary goal is to be entertaining. If the mockumentary is to feel authentic, it must follow the style and patterns of a real documentary as closely as possible. Lean too much in one direction and the film becomes too fictional, and as a result it feels like a complete sham, just like DIARY OF THE DEAD. If you overdo the documentary aspect, the film becomes dull, preachy and sanctimonious. Merging these two forms can be done, as has been seen in the many films of Christopher Guest and his casts and crews of WAITING FOR GUFFMAN, BEST IN SHOW, A MIGHTY WIND and the like. Guest’s films masterfully blend documentary style and fictional content to be wonderfully entertaining and fabulously satirical. AMERICAN ZOMBIE borrows a page from Christopher Guest’s successes and is a film with a purely ludicrous premise, but it is able to tell a razor sharp tale while at the same time being funny and a little scary too.

AMERICAN ZOMBIE is the story of real film makers Grace Lee and John Solomon, who reluctantly join forces to make a film about the growing “zombie issue” in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. A congenital and dormant virus creating “revenant” conditions in people who have recently and violently died has resulted in growing population of zombies coming in three classes: feral, low functioning and high functioning. High functioning zombies are able to be a part of daily “human” life, but are often socially ostracized and politically and/or economically persecuted. Grace and John begin by interviewing four high functioning zombies, Ivan, Lisa, Judy and Joel, all of whom lead disparate lives and have divergent hopes, dreams and perceptions of themselves. The “zombie” documentary grows to explore government agencies, local action groups and private enterprise as they relate to zombies. Finally, the film makers are grudgingly invited to an all-zombie retreat called “Live Dead”, where they are able to record the artistic, musical and social interactions of the zombie class. It is at “Live Dead” that the film makers uncover secrets that determine the final outcome of their project.

AMERICAN ZOMBIE works because it never takes its eyes off the prize. While trying to be entertaining, it is also unswervingly a “documentary” at heart and binds itself by the rules that it must be simple and to the point. What makes most “mockumentaries” a failure is that the people being filmed feel like actors acting and are put into situations that are outside normal behavior, thus shattering any sense of authenticity. The “zombie” characters, Ivan, Lisa, Judy and Joel are all perfect representations of average “people” and feel like the kind of folks you would see at the grocery store or in a restaurant. Some might question some of the realism, as Judy and Lisa seem a little “left of center” in their tastes and “beliefs”. If you spend or have spent any time with the general public in any capacity, every one of AMERICAN ZOMBIES’ portrayals is spot on, and from there the humor and poignancy arises. The high functioning zombies aren’t all that different from the “humans” and that is the root of the irony. These “zombies” are just as self-absorbed, foolish, banal and senseless as the vast majority of citizens, and just as dangerous but in their own unique fashion. As the film progresses and the viewer learns of the zombies’ passions and pastimes, the fact that each character is one of The Undead points a quivering finger of accusation at everyday culture and asks, “Are we just as pointless and puerile as a Zombie?” Even the film makers aren’t spared, as they depict each other as unethical, vain, crass and selfish. By the end of the movie, no one has been left unscathed, but rather than create a tapestry of miserable characters you hate and as a result, you rip the disc from the player, all that AMERICAN ZOMBIE has done is hold up a mirror grimed with the moldy, flaking skin of the undead so that we can see ourselves trapped in their same cul-de-sac existence.

The structure and pacing of AMERICAN ZOMBIE is another effective component of this motion picture. It is patient without being slow and it moves from person to person and place to place, telling a cohesive narrative without being choppy. What starts out as light and occasionally mirthful, takes on a very subtle degree of seriousness, always mixing in small dollops of humor for good measure until the last one-third of the film. From that point onward, the solemnity of the movie steadily escalates until unpleasant, uncomfortable and then unnatural events occur. Some may be disappointed with how long the “horror” element of AMERICAN ZOMBIE takes to materialize, but that is the beauty of this project. It isn’t just a horror movie, it is a horror/comedy-social satire-mockumentary about zombies.

AMERICAN ZOMBIE was filmed and scored with care so as to look and feel like a documentary but without looking too slick or too amateurish. Patterning the nature of the story, the first two-thirds of the film are shot well, look clean and are well lit enough so that most everything can be seen. As events begin to spin out of control, the camera work emulates that decline and becomes darker and more frenetic. While I don’t like jumpy, hand-held, “commando” film photography, it is not overdone here and fits the needs of the narrative. The score is a mix of underground genre music, all of which is carefully chosen to accompany the mood of the film. Like the camerawork, it is not meant to be too sophisticated or too much like a garage band of eleven year-olds, all it must do is successfully blend with the imagery and the story to feel convincing, and that it does.

AMERICAN ZOMBIE has a small but appealing set of bonus features. In addition to two very interesting commentary tracks, one with director Grace Lee and co-writer Rebecca Sonnenshine and the other with Grace Lee and cast members Austin Basis, Suzy Nakamura, Al Vicente and Jane Edith Wilson, there is an enjoyable 8 minute “behind the scenes” featurette that plays like a documentary of a documentary. Mixing short Q & A statements from cast members and a surprising cross-section of the crew, scenes of filming, set construction and makeup effects and set to sound track songs, "behind the scenes is a delightful look at this fine flick's background. Finally, there are a four Cinema Libre trailers (AMERICAN ZOMBIE, HOLE STORY, COCAINE ANGEL and CONVENTIONEERS) worth watching since their interesting titles don’t show up in the average trailer compilations. As I have said over and over, any consumer’s good will (or a jaded and biased reviewer) can be secured by putting in a few extras that lift the movie-watching occasion to a film appreciation experience.

While the “mockumentary” is one of the more hip and fashionable film to make today, it is nice to see that it can still be done right. A well done mockumentary should induce a few smiles and laughs, bring forth the odd groan or wince, make you examine the points that have been offered and finally leave you feeling like your time was well spent and that you benefited from the experience. AMERICAN ZOMBIE hit every one of those nails on the head and did so without smashing any fingers and thumbs in the process. Having spent some of my early adult years working in a retail book store and dealing with the consumer public, I can still see in my mind the hordes of zombies shambling through the store, in especially large numbers at the holidays, unable to make decisions or articulate what it was that they wanted. AMERICAN ZOMBIE helped me to laugh at those memories when I thought that mankind would be overwhelmed by the plague of the undead, and it also reminded me that the threat that zombies pose is still “real”. They are all around us, in Wal-Mart and Home Depot, at the diner, sitting across from us at the supper table, even staring back at us in the bathroom mirror.

For an exclusive interview with AMERICAN ZOMBIE director Grace Lee, click HERE.

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