Indie filmmakers Grace Lee and John Solomon (both playing themselves) team up to shoot a documentary about dysfunctional zombie folk - or Revenants - struggling to find acceptance in Los Angeles. Their subjects include: undead slacker Ivan (Austin Basis) who prints his own fanzine - “American Zombie”; Judy (Suzy Nakamura), a perky but lovelorn customer service rep at a health food company; Joel (Al Vicente), zombie activist and founder of ZAG (“Zombie Advocacy Group”), whose slogan runs: “We’re here. We’re dead. Get used to it”; and Lisa (Jane Edith Wilson), an outwardly serene, but troubled artist. Documentarian Grace wants to get to know her subjects “on their own terms”, while horror fan John is eager to uncover their darker side. The crew get permission to shoot at a three-day, zombies only event called “Live Dead”, where they stumble across a sinister secret that suggests the Revenants aren’t as affable as they seem.
Early into American Zombie, Grace Lee rejects John Solomon’s suggestion they make the film and says: “I make documentaries. I don’t make monster movies.” Lee’s last movie, The Grace Lee Project (2006), won great acclaim for depicting the prejudices and misconceptions encountered by Asian-Americans and she tackles this unique combination of horror, black comedy and spoof documentary with similar intent. The zombies here are a minority group exploited like migrant workers, shunned by colleagues, abused by the living, and basically marginalised by society in general. Lee also pokes fun at trendy, liberal, media types as coffee house patrons flock to an exhibition by a zombie artist; and at well-meaning Christians (“Jesus was the original zombie!”). She seems to have struck a chord with California-based cultural hounds, who’ve heaped praise upon American Zombie as a sassy satire. However, as satire goes, it’s fairly parochial, unlikely to mean much to anyone outside L.A. Moreover, its wry humour is so low key it is often just plain unfunny, while the third act lurch into outright horror becomes unintentionally comic.
The interviewees are sketches rather than fully drawn characters and rather broadly played instead of naturalistic. Romantically frustrated Judy and affable activist Joel remain the most interesting, even when they turn shockingly nasty, but the subplot involving artist Lisa’s attempt to uncover her past remains frustratingly vague. It’s somewhat affecting how she remains unable to connect with either the living or undead, watching forlornly at Live Dead as Revenants ignore her work (“There is beautiful, life changing art happening here, if you would only pay attention” she weeps). Like several other zombie artists, Lisa produces mysterious spirals, a supposedly significant detail that Lee and co-screenwriter Rebecca Sonnenshine abruptly cast aside.
Elsewhere, portly, Jack Osbourne look-alike, Ivan proves a waste of screen time. A stock slacker character we’ve seen too many times before. He actually has a human girlfriend, self-styled “zombie groupie” Monique (Vanessa Peters), who remarks: “Zombies suck at the sex thing, but the foreplay is amazing.” Ivan proves incapable of fidelity or saying the words ‘I love you’ and is promptly dumped. It’s one of several instances of unrequited love that extend to Judy’s frustrated attempts to land “Mr. Right” and a human lawyer who proves unable to draw Joel’s eye. All of which suggests it’s more than prejudice that keeps these characters marginalised.
John Solomon proves the most interesting “character” on view, an indie horror geek who wears E.R. scrubs, likes being mistaken for a doctor, and clashes mildly with Lee over his desire to use storyboards. The latter third heads into Blair Witch Project territory, as Lee goes for the old “filmmakers are worse than flesh eaters” gambit, that was old hat (and highly dubious) when Ruggero Deodato tried it with Cannibal Holocaust (1979). John even repeats the “I’m sorry I got you into this…” speech from Blair Witch. The uncovering of a sinister conspiracy somewhat undermines the use of zombies as an allegory for repressed minorities, leaving us with a muddled curio. Not nearly as clever as it thinks it is.