Zombies are people too. Such is the message, sort of, given by director Grace Lee's American Zombie. Though it is wholly fictional, the movie is made in documentary style and purports to explore the lives of some average living dead-types in Los Angeles. At times funny and momentarily thoughtful, the film attempts to draw parallels between some of its zombie figures, their lives of loneliness, and the lives of people in present-day Los Angeles.
It is an unfortunate fact that the parallel is a little too easy and the characters painted in an overly broad fashion. The “documentary” follows the slacker zombie convenience store clerk, Ivan (Austin Basis); the fakely happy bee worker in denial about her zombie situation, Judy (Suzy Nakamura); the quiet, about one second from losing her mind completely, Lisa (Jane Edith Wilson); and the zombie rights activist, Joel (Al Vincente). Even the most fresh-faced viewer will be able to guess where they are going to end up by the film's end.
The same is also true of the documentary filmmakers within the film – Grace Lee (as a version of herself) and John Solomon (as a version of himself). As with the zombies they follow, both characters are very one-dimensional. This makes it far easier to understand where they, and the zombies they are following come from. It allows for a lot of easy jokes, but it also undercuts the piece as a whole – it's hard to show via a film the truth about people in this world if you don't create fully realized ones in the film itself.
That being said, if one doesn't look for any sort of deeper meaning to the film, it is quite a fascinating notion for a mockumentary. What if zombies were real? What if they were living in normal society with us? What would they look like? What would they do? How would they choose to integrate, or separate, themselves from the average person.
Sure, none of those are earth-shattering questions, but they make for a very interesting film. Or, more accurately, they do right up until the Lee (the real one) and her co-writer (Rebecca Sonnenshine) opt to go down the well-worn zombie horror path.
The change from mockumentary to mocku-horror film is one that the viewer will see coming from virtually the start of the film, but it is one that Zombie should have done its best to avoid. As a horror film, Zombie has little to offer that viewers haven't seen before. While it is all still filmed in a realistic manner, the tension never gets sufficiently ratcheted up to make the viewer feel any sort of peril.
Additionally, the turn comes at a point in the film when the audience knows that the story has just about run its course; the switch is the film's last gasp and nothing more. Perhaps the problem is that the viewer has been waiting for the move to horror since the film began and it is only once it occurs that the viewer can finally sit back and relax, thereby destroying the goal of the horror (to scare people).
Whatever the reason for the shift in tone, it does the film a great disservice. The original idea – learning about the zombies that make up a part of our culture and what they choose to hide from us – is fascinating a one. With the switch to horror mode, Zombie never answers the questions it lays forth. Thus, at the end of the film, the viewer sits there and can't help but wonder just a little bit why exactly they bothered.
The DVD release of American Zombie features behind the scenes documentaries which, while the shed little light, may be more interesting than the ones one usually finds on a DVD. As an independent film, it feels as though there are fewer intermediaries between the viewer and the filmmakers, and the production size much more manageable for the viewer to understand.
In the end, American Zombie presents an interesting concept and yet leaves the viewer feeling distinctly unsatisfied. The ending chosen was the easy way out and wholly undercuts that which precedes it.