Saturday, July 31, 2010

Review: American Zombie

Zombies used to scare me when I was a kid. Back in the day (assuming that day was located somewhere around the time Leif Garrett was a household name), zombie movies weren’t even rated. Seminal zombie classic Dawn of the Dead was released in 1978 with the warning that “No One Under 17 Will Be Admitted”.

It made pre-teen horror geeks like myself drool, wondering what brain-searing images might be up on the screen.

They could have just said: "Prepare to get brainfucked through your eye socket" and it may have been more subtle.

Then Michael Jackson (no disrespect, may he rest in peace, sham-on) ruined everything with his dancing zombies in Thriller. Sure it was fun, inventive, and cool. But it made zombies seem, well, silly.

Or more to the point, it made me realize how silly zombies already were. They were slow moving (yeah, I know, not anymore, but we are talking pre-28 days Later) and really dumb. A zombie attack was like being chased by a herd of carnivorous turtles. Anyone dumb and slow enough to get caught and eaten probably should have been thinned from the herd anyway (just as Darwin intended it ... when he created the Universe in 7 days in a laboratory in Cambridge ... it's true ... just read the Bible).

I'm going to eat you ... if you just hold still and wait right there for 20 minutes ... rigormortis acting up in the right hip.

Anyhoo, in 2008 the zombie genre and the mockumentary genre had a mumblecore baby called American Zombie and I finally got around to watching it. Though it hasn't changed my feeling that zombies are silly, I found it to be a thoroughly fun, clever, well acted piece worth an add in your Netflix queue.

We're Here! We're Dead! Get Used to It!

Our protagonist is Grace Lee, an overly-earnest and politically correct documentarian, who teams up with her old college friend John to make a documentary about how zombies are a new political minority seeking its rights.

For all five of you who read my blog (love you guys!!), you know that I have had a hard time with True Blood because of the whole “Vampire Rights as Gay Rights Analogy” thing. It’s clever and funny, but it also bugs, because vampires are predators and(just put me in the humorless liberal club on this one ... something I will be sure to be embarrassed about in 5-10 years) gays are not predators.

So, the idea of a “zombie rights” movie had me a little skeptical from the outset. But, I think filmmaker Grace Lee succeeded in making a very amusing low-budget dark comedy.

The members of the “non-living community” are explained to be misunderstood. They aren’t mindless, flesh eating monsters, but people afflicted with the R428 virus which makes them undead, but still thinking, feeling, and one assumes eating ... er ... something.

Ivan, the perhaps-not-so-terrible

We have Ivan, the overweight teen who works at a convenience store and writes a zine (you gotta love that zombies still have zines!); Judy, an Asian zombie who works for a vegan organic food company; Joel, the revolutionary who leads Z.A.G. – the Zombie Advocacy Group; and Lisa, a middle-aged zombie with a bad dye job.

What makes the film work as a comedy (it’s not a horror movie by any stretch), is that we have a very funny conflict between respectful, painfully P.C. Grace and aggressive, pushy John. John asks the questions that Grace will not out of politeness. Important questions like … do you eat the flesh or brains of the living? It’s all very well played, their resentments well buried deep beneath their calculated filmmaker exteriors.

It also succeeds as a satire of modern urban liberalism. The zombies are all very lefty, sweet-natured, hippie types. But no matter how tame vegan Judy seems as she is tending her organic tomatoes, she is still a fucking zombie right? And, well, zombies are dangerous ... or aren't they?

Judy looking perfectly passive ... but will she cut a bitch?

Zombies as a metaphor for the pacifist left turns out to be quite inspired. Grace seems to be poking fun at us hippie types who have shunned our natural aggression and buried it deep into the psychological shadows, only to have it emerge in neurotic and unexpected places (like having a meltdown when Whole Foods doesn't have the Unsweetened Organic Hemp Milk that you like ... for example ... not speaking from personal experience).

Can zombies be happy as shut down, civilized, TV-watching, passive-aggressive Americans ... or do they need something more? It's a fun question and the movie has fun playing around with it.

American Zombie does a lot with its limited budget. I am not going to nit pick any details that don’t work, because there are so many that do.

It is very well shot, especially considering it is done completely handheld. One scene in particular stands out: As things start to go off the rails and Grace is in the back seat dealing with a crisis, the camera slips and focuses simply on the car window, drops of rain reflecting the flashing lights of cars that pass by. The visuals are meditative and quiet as we listen to the drama unfolding off screen. It’s a lovely, simple and cinematic moment that made me wonder what Grace Lee would be capable of given just a little more money.

Are you listening Hollywood?


  1. I'm gonna have to go with no, even in the zombie state the need to gnaw open skulls and eat the brains,, BRRAAAAIIINNNSSSS!!! this is still in the zombie's nature, no matter what the viral or toxic waste cause.

    And one cannot fight their nature. it's true!

    so no, they not safe!!

    braaaiiinnnnsss BRRRRRRAAAAIIINNNNSSS!!!

  2. Great review. I only saw this recently too after hearing about it for ages. I was worried I'd be terribly disappointed, but it was a fun and interesting film.

  3. This post reminded me of this cracked article, yet to see the movie though