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Robert N. Skir Written by Robert N. Skir
Mar. 22, 2008 | 2:09 AM

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by Robert N. Skir

For everybody who feared that the zombie genre (and, yes, there are so many zombie films that it really does merit its own genre) was as listless and bloodless as, well, an actual shambling ghoul, along comes the wonderful American Zombie.

The film takes the form of a documentary, as have so many films in the wake of The Blair Witch Project.  But what distinguishes American Zombie from such recent entries as Cloverfield and Diary of the Dead is its distinctive use of pointed satire.  Rather than just using shaky hand-held cameras for effect, writer/director GRACE LEE and co-writer REBECCA SONNENSHINE do a first rate job examining the current trend of documentary filmmakers to insert themselves their work, often stealing focus from the film’s alleged subject matter.

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American Zombie perfectly captures the conflict between two young directors trying to collaborate on a single project.  The film’s “Grace Lee” wants to make an ethnographic film about how the zombies fit in (or fail to fit in) with society.  Lee’s film-within-a-film collaborator “John Solomon” wants to do a 60 Minute-style expose revealing that zombies are far from the befuddled, benign, misunderstood underclass… and are actually flesh eating monsters! That these two directors are completely at cross-purposes provides American Zombie with its wonderful narrative spine.

The zombie subjects of the film are equally fun and fascinating.  Each character represents so many of the lost souls we are likely encounter every day on the actual streets of Los Angeles.  IVAN, a twentysomething convenience store clerk (night shift, unsurprisingly) muddles through life with two roommates, one a zombie and one human… and good luck telling which one is which.

Likewise, Natural Foods Customer Rep JUDY is a health nut looking for her Mr. Right, with whom she can have (read: adopt) a child.  Like so many lonely people stuck in unfulfilling office jobs and lacking a relationship, she spends her free time on busywork hobbies such as scrap-booking and collecting cat figurines (she’s allergic to actual cats).  The fact that she is dead will not hinder her attempts at love and fulfillment.

String-art, yoga, and regression therapy enthusiast LISA is the sort of New Age Angelino you might run into at any weekly Farmer’s Market.  The fact that she’s a zombie makes her seem no more befuddled or hapless than she probably was in life, a point made clear during a Fusion Alternative Medicine session during which her “healer” uses candles and Native American chants to help rid Lisa of her maggots.  (Like you’ve never known somebody who’s used these sorts of techniques to cure arthritis or stomach ulcers or…!)  As we see more and more of her, we realize that her avowed New Age philosophies are but a thin veneer hiding a hideous passive-aggressive streak. When Lisa realizes that the documentarians Grace and John are not there to serve her ends, she becomes hostile in ways that make us realize that her being a zombie is the least scary thing about her!

Zombie Activist JOEL (“We’re Here!  We’re Dead!  Get Used To It!”) is trying to get full rights for the unliving, including health care, voting privileges, and protection from hate crimes.  The extent to which he is merely exploiting the filmmakers in order to further his own personal and socio-political agendas becomes apparent as the film progresses.  He is revealed to be so weasly that you’d wish he was merely as benign as one of George Romero’s throat-ripping ghouls.

Director Lee (the actual director, not the fictional one) mixes pathos with humor, creating a portrait of the relationship between the media and its subjects, and the effects they have on one another… which distinguishes this film from other handheld genre films such as Cloverfield, as well from the zombie comedy Shaun of the DeadAmerican Zombie has a lot in common with Max Brooks’ brilliant “World War Z”, a book collecting firsthand accounts of our war with the zombies.  Both Lee’s film and Brooks’ fiction elevate the material, resulting in rich, social commentaries.

One of the most stunning things about American Zombie is the level of insane gore… there simply isn’t any! American Zombie eschews horror money-shots such as on-camera eviscerations, replacing them with deadpan cinematic naturalism that makes you believe in a Los Angeles wherein zombies share the streets with the rest of us.

The film relies on social commentary and humor rather than scares.  And when the scares do come, the shock creates a wonderful counterpoint.

Very simply, it’s the most biting satire in years, and easily one of the best zombie films of this decade.

AMERICAN ZOMBIE opens March 28th for a one week engagement at the Laemmle Sunset 5!

Q&A with director Grace Lee to follow 3/28 & 3/29 7:30 PM screenings.  Watch the trailer and check out the film’s official website!


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