Friday, April 22, 2011


American Zombie (2007)
Dir. Grace Lee

This is the first film of this year's marathon to successfully take on the topic of contemporary zombies with some seriousness.  It doesn't shy away from using humor, but there's a pretty serious, fairly disturbing undertone to the entire affair.  It's also the first film this year with a female writer/director Grace Lee (as well as co-writer, Rebecca Sonnenshine).  Lee graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles film program and was an experienced writer/director of short films before moving into documentary work with her biographical documentary, The Grace Lee Project (2005).

For her first feature-length non-doc film, she chooses to stay close to her comfort zone and produce a mock documentary about the Living Dead among us.  In the world of this film, zombies are real, but they come in three varieties: Feral (we're most familiar with these), Low-Functioning (practically mindless, but mostly harmless corpses used for low-level manual labor), and High-Functioning (the undead with most of their minds intact, can sometimes pass for human).   Lee plays herself in the film.

The idea for the documentary comes from John Solomon (playing himself), a cinematographer and, at least in the film, trauma footage cameraman.  He's not really taken seriously as a film maker, but thinks that by teaming up with Lee, he can finally finish a project.  And not just any project, but a great project.

Spoilers Ahead!
One of the best parts of this film is the way Lee sticks to the documentary nature of the in-narrative project.  If I didn't know any better, there are times when it seems like a real doc.  So much so, in fact, that for the first fifteen or twenty minutes, I wasn't sure if I was really going to enjoy it.

Not that I don't like documentaries, but the actors playing the zombies here are very good at their jobs.  The focus of this film is on what life is like for the functioning undead in our society.  It's played very serious and is extremely effective.  I was afraid that we were going to stay in that mode, but to my relief the film subtly shifts tone as it goes on, becoming more disturbing and ultimately both frightening and funny.

The four zombies that provide the focus of the documentary are twenty-something slacker, Ivan (Austin Basis), self-loathing zombie Judy (Suzy Nakamura), slightly off flower-arranger Lisa (Jane Edith Wilson), and community activist Joel (Al Vicente).  Every one of these actors is experienced and very talented.  They bring very human qualities to their characters, with Judy being the most heart-breaking.  Her constant scrap-booking and desperate attempts to fit into human society are clearly doomed to failure, but for most of the film she keeps trying to deny that she's different in any fundamental way.  Lisa's preoccupation with spiral string art and her own mysterious murder starts off fairly humorously, but by the end has twisted into violent obsession that is tragic and moving.

I'd hazard a guess that having women writing and directing is why, for a change, the female characters are the most interesting and have the most satisfying narrative arcs.  Ivan is relatively static, but entertaining, and Joel plays his character with honesty, but his ultimate reveal is a little predictible.  But, with that said, the performances are solid and they both make the best of what they're given to work with.

There's very little to dislike with this film.  The writing, directing, acting, and technical aspects are all about as good a low-budget film can get.  The documentary conceit helps to narratively justify the film making techniques on display, and the characters are, for the most part, layered and interesting people into whose lives we are drawn. 

What really made this film work for me in the end, though, was the subtle undertones of threat and a sense of existential dread that resonated through the final twenty minutes or so.  John's ultimate fate was amusing at first, but as the reality of it sank in, became more and more tragic and bleak. 

I can't recommend this film more highly.  This is the good stuff.

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