This quippy send up of identity politics documentaries offers some occasionally biting moments, but largely falls flat. Some jokes (“We’re not making the Grace Lee Project 2.”) may be lost on auds, while others (“Jesus was the first zombie.”) may really sing in the aisles. Modest numbers are likely.
Doc director Grace Lee plays against her fellow filmmaker Roger Ainslie (here playing “Jim Miller”) as documentarians out to tell the story of the nation’s least represented community: the living dead. Jim’s tack is decidedly more commercial than Grace’s more literate and experienced approach. So as he’s trying to incite flashes of gore and aggression from the otherwise docile “deceased,” Grace tries to probe their psychological depths. Comically, each of the “highly functioning” zombies has an ongoing obsession with voids. This among other details is a great little cue to the in-depth thought given to this film’s premise.
The most telling layer of this satire is the commentary offered by the young and passionate activist zombie Joel (Al Vicente), who works with a small group to help assimilate the living dead. He’s involved with helping zombies of differing functionalities get jobs, find suitable housing and generally congregate. When checking in on a group of recently employed, lesser functioning zombies, he asks if they have had suitable breaks and time off. The boss, who speaks to us in Chinese, tells us he has to remain “competitive” and—with a certain amount of flippancy—that the zombies don’t seem to be effected by working 24/7. This and other echoes of exposés on the dangers of (dare I call it) globalization appear like bittersweet homages to preceding grassroots docs.
Ultimately, however, American Zombie ‘s most compelling satire revolves around the tense relationship suffered by activist docs and the exploitation they utilize in the name of awareness raising. While Jim pushes the envelope, provokes the zombies with borderline offensive questions and shows us his storyboards (“Documentaries don’t have storyboards, Jim.”), Grace is left to explain, without much fanfare, the baseline value of representing the underrepresented. As the underrepresented group is basically mythical, we get to pick apart the mode of inquiry much in the same way we might interrogate radical politics as represented in a period piece. The ironic distance, if strangely handled, offers us a myriad of priceless liberties: And, of course, an opportunity to take ourselves less than seriously.
Cast: Grace Lee, Roger Ainslie, Andrew Amondson, Austin Basis, Suzy Nakamura, John Solomon, Jane Edith Wilson and Al Vicente
Director: Grace Lee
Screenwriters: Grace Lee and Rebecca Sonnenshine
Producers: Hoon-tak Jung and In-Ah Lee
Running time: 90 min.
Release date: March 28 ltd.