Tuesday, November 11, 2008


“They go by different names: decedents, the non-living community, revenants, the living dead, zombies. But, whatever they are, they are real.”

One of the most atypical—and most effective—of cinema’s recent zombie entries has to be Grace Lee’s faux documentary, American Zombie.
Tracking the lives of four “revenants” in a world where the living dead exist and take the bus just like everybody else, American Zombie is one of the most imaginative takes on the subject matter I’ve seen, and humbly follows in the hallowed footsteps of Romero’s brand of undead social commentary.

Here, zombies stand in for anyone who’s been marginalized, abused, and disabused, the disenfranchised and alienated of society, regardless of race, creed, or colour.
All we really want, after all, is to understand and accept who we are, and be embraced for that; to love and to be loved.
That goes for zombies too.

“We’ve made three classifications that define the revenant population.
“The first classification is the feral zombie, which are beings that seem to function without reason.
“Second is low-functioning zombies. These are beings that have limited mental capacity, but they’re perfectly capable of caring for themselves.
“And the third is high-functioning zombies. These beings have vast portions of their mental facilities intact, and it’s not unusual for them to pass as humans.”

The parallels with the real world are plain to see, from people living with a potentially catastrophic, communicable disease, to an abused labour force without rights or privileges, to “an untapped market for spiritual enlightenment.”
I have seen zombies, my friends, and in American Zombie, the zombies are us.

The “high-functioning” cross-section Lee chooses to people her documentary with include Ivan (Austin Basis), a convenience store clerk who puts out a ‘zine called American Zombie; Judy (Suzy Nakamura), a customer relations rep for Healthful Bounty, an organic food company; Lisa (Jane Edith Wilson), a would-be artiste/florist (specialization: funeral arrangements) who has no memory of her former life and death; and Joel (Al Vicente), founder of ZAG, the Zombie Advocacy Group (“We’re here. We’re dead. Get used to it.”), who pronounces his name “Yo-El.”
It’s through their stories that Lee moves the audience over a gamut of emotions, a more varied palette of feeling than that offered by many a one-tone horror movie.

And yes, American Zombie is a horror movie, though not the sort with buckets of fake blood and rubber entrails.
Here is, at the risk of setting off the pretention alarm, the horror of existence: the horror of loneliness, and rejection, and aimlessness, and prejudice, and injustice.
It’s the horror of being invisible, of being treated—for whatever reason—as a second-class citizen, without the right to rent property, or to vote, or to marry.

“Jesus loves zombies. Jesus was the original zombie.
“I’m sure, you know, some really strict theologian would have some problems with that, but, but I say it, you know, I say it to kind of, wake the zombies up. You know, to let the zombies know that, ‘Hey, you’re not alone. You know, Jesus has been through the same thing.’”

Lest I’m making American Zombie sound, heh, deathly serious, let me assure you, there’s a healthy streak of humour here too, thus, that gamut of emotions I mentioned earlier.
The mere set-up alone allows for an amusing laugh or three: real life documentarian Grace Lee—who’s tackled weighty subject matter like military prostitution and sweatshop workers’ rights—plays herself in a documentary about zombies (which sort of reminds me of Werner Herzog appearing as himself in Zak Penn’s Incident at Loch Ness).
Tell me that doesn’t sound funny.

The beauty of American Zombie though, is that, as funny as it is, it also succeeds in drawing out some of the sad truths of who we are, not just as a society, but as thinking, feeling individuals as well.
This is what any good documentary should do. The fact that Lee achieves this in a fake documentary, with a premise that sounds as patently ridiculous as this one does… well…
“Triumph” is the word, people.
It’s a piece like this that makes me glad zombies are still living it up on the silver screen.

“We can’t pretend they don’t exist. They exist. They deserve our attention. It’s not a disease, it’s not a disability. It’s a new population, a population that deserves our respect and social services.”

(American Zombie OS courtesy of impawards.com and images courtesy of americanzombiemovie.com.)

1 comment:

JemBernaldez said...

I can't believe I wasn't able to notice this! I was totally gonna watch DISTRICT 9 ( aliens are the main hype there... same situation, only worse) but i think you changed my mind ha!