American Zombie Movie Review
Written by Steve Pattee
DVD released by Cinema Libre Studio
I think what most people don't know is that it's art. And it's awesome! – Judy on scrapbooking.
Directed by Grace Lee
Written by Rebecca Sonnenshine and Grace Lee
2007, 96 minutes, Not rated
DVD released on July 8th, 2008
Austin Basis as Ivan
Suzy Nakamura as Judy
Al Vicente as Joel
Jane Edith Wilson as Lisa
John Solomon as John
Making a good documentary is tough. It can be well put together, but entirely too slanted (Michael Moore, I'm looking at you), too much of your opinion with no counter points (Inconvenient Truth) or just a statement of the obvious to appeal to the Walmart shopper (Supersize Me). To make a good documentary, the topic has to be somewhat compelling, be (relatively) fair and, most importantly, the interviewees have to be interesting. Paradise Lost is an excellent example of what a great documentary is all about, and the recently reviewed Snuff: A Documentary About Killing on Camera is a very close second.
A mockumentary, on the other hand, is an entirely different beast. It's a lot tougher to make because not only does the filmmaker have to follow the rules of the documentary, they also have to do it with actors. If you don't have actors that can't act "naturally," your mockumentary will lose any power it might have had. (See Romero's Diary of the Dead for a good example of this. The film is filled with good actors, but they are not believable as documentary subjects.) Perhaps that is why Christopher Guest — arguably one of the best pseudo-documentary makers ever — uses the same stable of actors in his films. He knows they can get it done.
In the world of American Zombie, the walking dead are among us, but they are lower class citizens. Zombie director and co-writer Grace Lee plays "herself" in the movie, and she and her team follow four high functioning zombies, seeing how they live, learning their dreams and watching them deal with such things as discrimination. The subtext is obvious — the zombies can represent any given minority group (one zombie protest included the chant "We're here, we're dead, get used to it!") — but it's not heavy handed, which is nice.
Lee wisely threw two conflicts into Zombie to spice it up. The first is the film's doc makers trying to get access to a yearly zombie shindig: Live Dead (that's "live" as in "Live Aid"). No breathers are allowed at Live Dead, but Lee pushes and needles the organizers until her team gets access. The film crew will soon find see there's a reason why the living aren't welcome.
The second is the ongoing debate between Lee and her co-director, John (John Solomon, also playing "himself"), on what the documentary should be about. Lee thinks it should be about the zombie community, whereas John wants to find out the truth about zombies — are they flesh eaters? What is, exactly, Live Dead? Do they want to eat brains? Ultimately, of course, Lee has the final decision, but that doesn't stop John from asking to see the inside of each zombie's refrigerator, as well as asking direct questions to the unsuspecting dead.
Both conflicts are interesting in their own right, but it's the second that makes things delightfully uncomfortable to watch. Lee and John play off each other well, and Lee's irritation and John's frustration with Lee are entirely believable. Hell, the acting across the board is entirely believable. Lee has a good mix of subjects for her "documentary," and each subject has a good actor behind them.
Yet — and this is where Zombie suffers — while each actor did a stellar job with their character, there just weren't enough comedic moments to make Zombie a true mockumenatry. Al Vincente was terrific as the zombie protest organizer, Joel, but Joel is not funny. He's a zombie fighting for zombie rights. The character would be great in a real documentary, but not so much here.
The same goes with Ivan (Austin Basis), the convenience store zombie. Ivan's goofy charm would be perfect in a straight doc, but goofy charm isn't enough for a satire — there needs to be laughs, not a few chuckles. This shouldn't be a reflection on Basis, as he is believable as Ivan, but rather the script. It's just a little too straight forward.
However, there are two actors in the mix that make Zombie well worth watching: Jane Edith Wilson as the big bottle of inner rage zombie, Lisa, and Suzy Nakamura as the self hating zombie, Judy. Wilson is a pleasure to watch because she is so silently angry, you are just waiting for to release her fury. It's unclear on what she's angry about, but there is definitely something going on in that decaying brain of hers that she can barely keep calm, and it makes for some comical situations.
Nakamura, though, is the true star of American Zombie. Her character, Judy, so desperately wants to be human, and she is so convincing with her performance that I just want to give her a hug. The best scenes in Zombie usually involved Nakaumura, because her character was the most compelling — both in acting and in delivery. She came to play.
American Zombie is interesting because it's somewhere in the middle of documentary and mockumnetary. Co-writer/director/star Grace Lee has the skill to make a good documentary, as Zombie has all the right elements: interesting characters, topical theme and conflict, but it's just quite not funny enough to succeed as a mockumentary. However, it's worth a rental for some of the performances, and I can see big things for Lee and the rest involved because, structurally, it's a solid movie. It just needs more humor.
While video, audio and special features will not be graded, as this was a screener, the DVD release promises to have two commentaries and a featurette.
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