Zombie films have come back into vogue, and American Zombie combines the genre with another filmmaking technique that recently gained popularity: the mockumentary. The film premiered earlier this year at Slamdance before making its way to SXSW. Documentary filmmaker Grace Lee (The Grace Lee Project) has switched to narrative filmmaking with entertaining but inconsistent results.American Zombie takes place in a contemporary America with one crucial difference: a virus is causing people to become undead -- at the moment of a violent death, the virus assumes control of the bodies and re-animates them. In this alternate universe, educational filmmaker John Solomon (playing himself) decides to make a documentary about the "revenant culture" and enlists the help of his friend, documentarian Grace Lee (playing herself).
John and Grace focus their film on several Los Angeles-area zombies: Ivan, a convenience-store worker who draws a zine in his spare time and has a live "zombie hag" girlfriend; Lisa, a florist specializing in funeral arrangements, who makes string art and has trouble with decaying flesh; Judy, who is in denial about being undead and devotes her time to scrapbooking, organic farming and fantasizing about her dream wedding; and Joel, who has founded ZAG, the Zombie Activism Group devoted to helping the undead find meaningful work.
The film makes a halfhearted attempt to equate the plight of the zombies with other minority groups -- for example, the ZAG motto is "We're here, we're dead ... get used to it." We see zombies face discrimination from employers who work them nonstop (they don't need to sleep) and landlords who won't rent them apartments. And Judy fantasizes about marrying a live man and adopting live children. However, the parallels are obvious and the film doesn't spend much time exploring them in-depth. I did like the minister who decided to preach to the zombies despite his church's disapproval because "Jesus was the original zombie," a quote that drew a round of applause from the SXSW audience.
American Zombie has some very funny sequences, but goes on for too long and repeats itself unnecessarily. The Live Dead sequence in particular seems to drag. The film needed a more substantial subplot; otherwise, it might have worked even better as a short film. The pre-credits sequence alone would have made an amusing short, but then we'd have missed the meta subplot about John and Grace's filmmaking efforts. The mockumentary comedy style is becoming overused, and Lee doesn't have quite the right touch for this kind of comedy -- she mocks the "documentary subject" characters in ways that often seem unnecessarily mean rather than funny, and reduces the characters to ridiculous stereotypes.
Lee is more successful in mocking her own character gently and with humor. The sequences in which John and Grace bicker over filmmaking styles are often more entertaining than the "documentary" footage of the undead. Consistent acting and good photography do make the documentary premise believable. American Zombie doesn't add much to the contemporary zombie genre or even the horror comedy genre but does provide light entertainment, especially if you like jokes about filmmaking.