March 23, 2008 / 8:36 PM / 11 years ago

"American Zombie" boasts some low-budget bite

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Grace Lee’s “American Zombie” is an ambitious mixture of mockumentary, satiric social commentary and off-center horror movie. The mix doesn’t quite jell, though there are a number of clever moments.

It’s uncertain whether devotees of “Night of the Living Dead” or “28 Days Later” will enjoy a tongue-in-cheek sendup of the genre, and fans of Christopher Guest-type mockumentaries might be put off by the primitive production values. Box office prospects will be iffy when it opens in limited release on March 28, but DVD business should be better.

Lee includes herself in the film as a documentarian determined to bring human understanding to members of the undead community living in Los Angeles. (Indeed, Lee has made bona fide docus on a number of social issues.) In character, she reluctantly goes into partnership with another genuine filmmaker, John Solomon, who plays a genre director eager to help her gain entry to the zombie community.

Some of the most entertaining sections of the film are the insider jokes about the prickly collaboration between these two auteurs from different corners of the indie film universe. “We don’t use storyboards in documentaries,” Lee tells her overeager partner during one of their many rifts.

They decide to focus their film on four zombies: Ivan (Austin Basis), a convenience-store clerk; Judy (Suzy Nakamura), a customer-service rep for a health food company; Lisa (Jane Edith Wilson), a florist; and Joel (Al Vicente), a political activist who helps to organize the top-secret Live Dead zombie convention every year. The film interweaves the four characters’ individual stories; their problems include mundane professional and romantic issues as well as somewhat more troubling dilemmas like the worms that ooze from the open wound of one of the zombies. While chronicling these adventures, the film also takes time to include talking-head “interviews” with scientists and other experts who pontificate on zombie culture.

The film changes tone when the filmmakers are granted permission to attend the zombie convention and are exposed to horrific rituals, which ultimately place them in jeopardy. While these moments are meant to be more frightening than the earlier quasi-docu scenes, the low budget undermines the intended shock value. Still, there are a couple of nifty surprises that do work effectively.

The best moments are the humorous ones. A scene in a sweat shop in which the owner explains why he hires zombies for cheap labor has genuine satiric bite. A religious revival meeting, in which a character suggests that “Jesus was the original zombie,” also is droll.

Performances vary widely in quality. Some of the “experts” who expound on zombie culture are portrayed by such amateurish actors that the film threatens to collapse. But the four leads deliver deft performances, and Lee and Solomon play themselves with panache.

Technical credits reflect the low budget but do not really detract from the proceedings. The main problem is that the satire is highly uneven, and the whole enterprise is a bit too drawn out to retain its irreverent momentum.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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