American Zombie
R1 - America - Cinema Libre
Review written by and copyright: Jeremiah Chin (10th July 2008).
The Film

It’s rare that I see DVD’s using blurbs from magazines and newspapers from my home town, Salt Lake City, but “American Zombie” (2007) takes the cake quoting not only SLUG magazine, a local underground newspaper, but also the Salt Lake City Weekly, a local underground newspaper. Now that I’m the latest Salt Lake resident to review it, I’m going to have to break the trend from the S.L.C. crowd to call writer/director Grace Lee’s latest effort ‘hilarious’ or ‘fresh’ and say it was ‘cornball’ and ‘cheesy,’ but not necessarily tasty.

The plot of “American Zombie” follows documentary filmmakers Grace Lee and John Solomon (as themselves) making a documentary about four ‘revenants’ or zombies living within the Los Angeles area and living semi-normal deaths (Get it, I made a zombie pun, now maybe SLUG magazine will think my review is fresh too). These four zombies are classified as ‘highfunctioning revenants’ meaning the walk, talk and basically appear human except for some grey-ish skin and the odd wound. Jose (Al Vicente) is a zombie rights activist, Ivan (Austin Basis) is a convenience-store clerk and skateboarder, Judy (Suzy Nakamura) is a zombie who is trying to avoid the fact that she’s dead and dreams of marrying a human, and Lisa is a florist who specializes in funeral bouquets.

There’s wacky dialogue and quirkiness, along the way, but the way the actors play it for the camera and the way their lines in the first half of the movie are scripted just try too hard to be funny or eccentric. The film becomes more about the filmmakers making the movie as Solomon and Lee dig deeper into the zombie subculture within Los Angeles, discovering a Live Dead festival held annually that they film. Things go sour and there’s an attempt at horror or something shocking at the end of the movie, but the way the first three quarters was so hammed up by the actors and the way script/improvised dialogue just really don’t work early on as a comedy there’s little reason to buy or even care about the twist at the end.

Sure, the idea is clever enough, zombies walking and talking demanding rights, but it’s an idea that’s been done by student film-makers before. I think that Lee and co-writer Rebecca Sonnenshine became enchanted by the clever idea, that they didn’t really go much further, there’s nothing to grab me within the film. There are also some mildly witty lines like ‘don’t essentialize the zombies’ but it’s more of a soft chuckle than anything. The self satirizing parts of the documentary also don’t really go anywhere as the dysfunctional documentary crew has been done far too many times and Lee and Solomon don’t bring much new to the issue.

Overall, I feel like Lee and Sonnenshine undercut and underestimate the social commentary forged in the Romero zombie movies and the power of horror cinema to be progressive or work as a social commentary. Instead by couching a pseudo-documentary in an on-face zombie premise to talk about rights seems a little heavy-handed to the audience and doesn’t deal with it all that well as subject matter. There’s potential in the well-meaning-documentarians sub-plot who could end up interfering more than helping in a rights struggle, but again nothing is really done with the sub-plot. Either that, or just go the full “Return of the Living Dead” (1985) route, have your zombies scream for brains with ridiculous gore, ridiculous lines and just have fun with the movie and the audience will have fun with you.

Video

“American Zombie” is presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio and the film is a bit grainy and pixilated at times, but it really doesn’t break the movie on its own and the transfer is otherwise fine. The lighting and the visual style are more centered on making a documentary, so it’s generally talking heads and things until the shocking twist at the end where the lighting and style moves towards the scared-shaky-cam style and tries to use car lighting in an interesting way, but it visually doesn’t play out that well in the video.

Audio

The English Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track is pretty poor, the sound gets really uneven at points in the movie, which could be a stylistic choice that opts for the built-in microphones to capture the documentary style, but when there’s a sound guy as a member of the documentary crew that becomes the subject of the movie it gets a little less acceptable. There’s some original zombie-centric songs played by zombies in the movie and there’s some emotional effect music at the end of the movie which makes the ending almost as cheesy as the first ¾ of the movie.
There are no optional subtitles available.

Extras

The disc features the basic core special features: audio commentary tracks and a behind the scenes documentary along with some theatrical trailers. Below is a closer look.

The first audio commentary features director/co-writer Grace Lee and co-writer Rebecca Sonnenshine and is fairly poor. There’s a lot of awkward pauses and they talk about how much the improvised lines used in the movie made them crack up in very monotone voices. There’s talk about how the movie was conceived and made, but overall isn’t that interesting and doesn’t help the movie any.

The second audio commentary features cast members Austin Basis, Suzy Nakamura (incorrectly spelled "Nakarmura"), Al Vicente, Jane Edith Wilson and writer/director Grace Lee. The group talks about their experiences on set, and some of the process behind the film along with their individual experiences, but the audio comes through pretty quietly and it’s hard to hear sometimes. Again, I wasn’t a big fan of the movie, so the commentary wasn’t very interesting, there’s just a lot of talk about what went on behind the scenes with the actors and how they know or came to know Lee.

Then the “Behind the Scenes Documentary” only runs for 7 minutes and 13 seconds and is more a featurette, there’s interviews with each of the four zombie actors, John Solomon and Grace Lee. There are jokes about trying to cast someone else as Grace Lee, jokes about Lee, some shots of the makeup process for some of the actors and general joking around.

Next the theatrical trailer for “American Zombie” runs for 1 minute and 28 seconds.

There are also a few bonus trailers for:

- “The Hole Story” runs for 2 minutes and 26 seconds.
- “Conventioneers” runs for 2 minutes and 2 seconds.
- “Cocaine Angel” runs for 45 seconds.

Overall

The Film: D Video: B Audio: D Extras: D Overall: D+

 


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