Mar 27, 2008

American Zombie (2008): B

After the dull (not to mention mean-spirited and largely unfunny) Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, one can be forgiven for treading the genre of the horror mockumentary with more than a bit of skepticism. The fact, then, that American Zombie exceeds initial expectations is a quality more than incidental in nature, it being not only among the most spot-on examples of the genre since Rob Reiner revolutionized it with This is Spinal Tap almost a quarter century ago, but also doubling as an intelligent re-examination of its predecessors in the horror genre. For the bulk of its running time, I'd even go so far as to suggest it of near-brilliance, its failure to follow through with a consistent batting average being the only impediment to its status as something of an instant, albeit minor, zombie classic. The scenario of the film—basically, that zombies are a real and everyday presence in our society—screams of gimmickry, a lethal trait the film avoids until a piteous conclusion manifest of an already unnecessary plot conflict, one that sidesteps the film's effectively inquisitive nature in favor of more traditional (read: contrived) storytelling devices. That the film itself serves to critique media trends and cinematic pretentions as much as anything else almost allows the success of the third act turn of events, but such is a slippery slope is the film lightens up on exposition in favor of deadpan, de-contextualized humor.

Totally aware of itself, American Zombie concerns two documentarians—John Solomon and Grace Lee, playing themselves—out to tell the zombies' side of the story, they a minority group working for equal rights, suffering the same patterns of discrimination and marginalization as any number of groups throughout U.S. history. Parallels to the civil rights, feminist and LGBT movement about as we see the undead—who are presented here, quite importantly, as being able to function without a reliance on human flesh—attempt to re-integrate themselves into society. The film's ultra-cheap budget is apparent in some of the effects work—an open wound is achieved with a simple prosthetic and a handful of mealy worms—but American Zombie maintains its own suspension of disbelief in great part because of the stellar cast, which pitch-perfectly replicate the casual nature of traditional documentary subjects with almost absolute consistency. Ditto the filmmakers, who present American Zombie as being from the same cloth as countless other docs, right down to the establishing shots and still-life cutaways that serve as transitions from one segment to the next. Nonetheless, their film avoids the tedium of its non-fiction fellows by constantly doubling back on itself, self-reflective (both figuratively and literally) and staunchly non-ironic, a quality that allows the film far more humor than had it openly winked to the audience about its many first-glance absurdities.

Few aspects of modern life go untouched: labor laws are in effect to prevent slave labor abuse of the undead, for whom the official, politically correct term is a "revenant". This is just one example of many in which American Zombie intelligently and meticulously maps out the social patterns and mechanisms at work as regards any group at odds with the status quo, recollecting Romero's deconstructions of racism and sexism through an effectively no-frills lens. Hate crimes abound (a zombie rights group entitled ZAG suffers routine graffiti attacks by zombie haters) while many of both secular and sacred backgrounds work towards greater unification, arguing, respectively, that anyone currently living may one day become a zombie themselves, and (in possibly the film's finest moment), that "Jesus loves zombies. Jesus was the original zombie." More often than not, American Zombie strikes pivotal chords by simply telling it like it is, stating out loud what was on everybody's mind when The Passion of the Christ and Zack Snyder's Dawn remake shared theater space in 2004.

Such trinkets of brilliance are complimented finely by numerous, altogether effortless homages to zombie films past (from Dawn of the Dead to Blood Sucking Nazi Zombies), while an early, scientific explanation of the zombie condition serves to bathe the rest of the proceedings in a state of complete legitimacy (essentially, a virus rests dormant in the brain until the moment of death, re-activating the cells long before decomposition begins to set in). The similarly themed They Came Back was more successful in its exploration of this scenario in large part because is bypasses the easy baiting that American Zombie goes for in the end (are the zombies up to something? will they eat someone, and who?), which disappointingly skimps out on the ravishing self-criticism initially suggested by the image of our protagonists recording themselves, implying that, by making a documentary about the undead, they are effectively telling the same story about how we function while still alive. The same has been true from the early days of Night of the Living Dead on through the more recently incisive Shaun of the Dead, but Lee's film proves—along with George Romero's Diary of the Dead—that it's a genre as viable as ever, endlessly flexible and perpetually illuminating.

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