During its initial moments, American Zombie looks as though it’s going to be a complete mockumentary on socially conscious documentaries on minority groups, sort of a fantasy/comedy version of commentaries on gay people, religious people, surfers, etc. Director Grace Lee and co-writer Rebecca Sonnenshine build up to having something more on their minds than parody.
Grace (filmmaker Lee) is a quasi-successful documentary maker, badgered by her friend John (John Solomon) into making a film about the undead population of Los Angeles. John insists on collaborating with Grace, initially coming up with storyboards even though Grace insists that documentaries don’t work that way. They and their crew (a largely unseen camera operator and sound technician) interview their way through the community, finding a large underclass of mostly articulate zombies working at low-wage jobs, creating art projects and joining political groups like ZAG, run by militant Joel (Al Vicente). John keeps tactlessly asking if the undead eat human flesh, getting demurrals from the interviewees and angry admonitions from Grace to stop alienating their subjects. A big zombie retreat, Live Dead, is coming up. Grace is initially told she and her crew can’t come, which John takes as a sure sign that something nefarious happens there. Then they get permission, with some restrictions.
We start realizing that Lee and Sonnenshine are working effectively as we start to worry about just what Grace, John and Co. will encounter at Live Dead. This isn’t the normal zombie movie fear of jump scares or gross-outs, but rather a building sense of mixed curiosity and dread. The filmmakers have obviously seen their share of real-life documentaries, because they’ve got the style down, with dead-on (pardon the expression) examples of people who are either nervous or clownish in front of the camera, people who don’t realize that the interviewers have probably heard some version of the party line before, people who have no idea how they’re coming off on video.
As American Zombie builds, though, and a hint of genuine menace comes through, we wonder exactly which metaphor the movie is going for. Surely we’re not meant to fear any particular minority? Perhaps this is a deliberate shift in genres, though Lee is very deliberate in maintaining a sense of normality, so that when unpredictable events take place, we really are startled.
Lee and Solomon use their own names and do expert jobs of portraying, respectively, analytical and sensationalistic approaches to video journalism, with a good sense of restraint that is increasingly convincing. Vicente has a good grasp of Joel’s political pattern and Suzy Nakamura is notable as a young woman who distances herself from her zombie identity.
In terms of what we are shown, American Zombie is somewhere between The Blair Witch Project and Diary of the Dead, leaning more toward the former than the latter. However, it benefits from taking the tack that the makers of the film within the film know what they’re doing, sparing us student squabbling and egos. It’s fairly quiet for a zombie movie, but ultimately it’s also rather good.