At just twelve years old Emily Hagins sets out to write and direct her first feature: an independent zombie horror called Pathogen. With mom Megan Hagins tackling multiple jobs behind the scenes, a cast of fickle high schoolers and next-to-no budget to speak of, young Emily faces an uphill battle that would tax most twenty-something film school grads. Let alone a shy, awkward but enthusiastic adolescent struggling to balance homework, high school, friends and family, and realize her movie-making dreams.
As chronicled in this engaging documentary the story of Emily Hagins should serve as a motivating kick in the pants for many an aspiring filmmaker. Be they young or otherwise. Film schools and coffee houses the world over are chock full of pretentious wannabe Tarantinos. Most of whom are rarely galvanized to do more than trash Hollywood films on the internet (er, wait a sec...) Meanwhile here is this twelve year old girl who actually went out and made something despite meager resources and a film crew basically consisting of herself and her mom. Zombie Girl: The Movie chronicles just how Emily Hagins pulled off this remarkable feat. Opening with a flashback to the fledgling auteur's early days, already by age ten a fixture of cult film screenings at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, the film charts how Emily's love for The Lord of the Rings inspired a fan letter to Peter Jackson. A director who famously got his own start in zero-budget D.I.Y. Filmmaking, Jackson put her in touch with Austin's resident film guru Harry Knowles, latterly controversial curator of groundbreaking movie news site AintItCool.com. This led to an invite to Knowles' annual movie marathon wherein then ten-year old Emily became enamoured with, of all things, the Australian zombie film Undead (2003). And thus the germ of an idea for Pathogen wormed its way inside young Emily's movie-mad brain. Shortly thereafter she befriended indie producer Rebecca Elliott who taught her the basics of film production then before long began work on her zombie opus.
While Zombie Girl remains fundamentally an uplifting story about the importance of persevering to realize one's dreams, co-directors Aaron Marshall, Justin Johnson and Eric Mauck wisely don't try to sugar-coat the sobering realities of independent filmmaking. Emily is no preternatural child genius, but rather an imaginative girl with a firm grasp of film history and more importantly a clear vision for her movie. Throughout we see her stumble through the filmmaking process, making rudimentary mistakes (the film opens with Emily directing father Jerry Hagins in a small role but forgetting to say "Cut!" until reminded by Megan) but learning from these and gradually hitting her stride. While a few of the obstacles encountered are unique to someone of such a young age (not many directors have to juggle homework or deal with mom interfering with their movie), a significant portion are likely to resonate with older filmmakers. Specifically, dealing with technical mishaps, uncooperative actors, lack of funds and struggling to articulate what you want. We see how the process of making Pathogen forces Emily to grow up in a lot of ways and are heartened to watch her develop the communication skills that are essentially two thirds of the job of making movies.
As a documentary in and of itself, Zombie Girl is probably not as arresting as say American Movie (1999). Scattered throughout proceedings a handful of film critics try to place Emily's activities in a wider context. Mention is made of Francis Ford Coppola's famous quote made in the aftermath of Apocalypse Now (1979) that advances in technology would enable kids outside Hollywood to become the next great auteurs (it is worth noting Emily made Pathogen on a home video camera just a few years prior to the rise of smartphone filmmaking). A few critics raise the awkward question of whether the democratization of filmmaking and a generation of children making movies is actually a good thing or not, but the documentary gives this question short shrift.
What elevates Zombie Girl is its depiction of the central relationship between Emily and her mother. Megan Hagins comes across as an invaluable ally, morale booster and general problem solver behind-the-scenes. While some leveled criticism her way for the perceived micro-managing of her daughter (some went so far as to accuse Megan of "ghost directing" Pathogen) the film makes it clear just how much she brought to production: wrangling actors, handling the sound mix and make-up effects, etc. Nevertheless the strain takes its toll. We see Megan grow increasingly tetchy, yelling at Emily and the child actors. Admittedly in an effort to keep the often unruly kids focused though she succeeds only in making an already anxious Emily more frazzled. Interestingly the film notes how the more confident and commanding Emily grows, the more sullen and withdrawn her mother becomes. Happily, since the release of Pathogen in 2006, Emily Hagins has continued to develop as a promising young filmmaker. Her later work includes comedy-horror My Sucky Teen Romance (2011), a segment of horror anthology Chilling Visions: 5 Senses of Fear (2013) and comedy Grow Up, Tony Phillips (2013), her first non-genre outing and a step towards more mature storytelling. More recently Emily's career took a bold leap forward with the Netflix Original Movie Coin Heist (2017), a crime thriller adapted from the young adult novel of the same name, and a six part digital series called Hold to Your Best Self (2018). As the likes of Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson can attest, great things can come from trifling with zombies.