Ever wonder what kind of people work the wolf-hour shifts at convenience stores? Back in 1980, Dennis Etchison satisfied that particular curiosity with his classic short story “The Late Shift,” in which night-shift cashiers were revealed to be the undead; they could make change, and they could only say “Please. Sorry. Thank you.”
Ivan (Austin Basis), one of the zombies profiled in Grace Lee’s fine mockumentary American Zombie, is considerably more eloquent, though still not quite Gore Vidal. Ivan, too, works in a convenience store, setting up the hot-dog rotisserie and bringing home any past-expiration food (“I try to eat as much preservatives as possible,” he says). American Zombie establishes three specific types of zombie: the aggressive ones, such as you might see in a George Romero film; low-functioning zombies, who shuffle and moan and are stuck in mindless menial jobs; and high-functioning zombies, who have retained most of their mental facilities. They’re still dead, though. Their flesh is rotting, and many of them ingest or inject some blue fluid (formaldehyde?), possibly to stall complete cellular breakdown. They tend not to remember how they died, which may be a blessing or a curse.
American Zombie may sound like a one-joke, one-note spoof. It isn’t, and to illustrate the difference, let me sidetrack for a second. Back in 2005, The Daily Show‘s Ed Helms did a three-part series of short skits called Zombie-American. Helms played Glen, a chatty zombie who wanted us to know that despite his decomposition and his culinary preferences, he was really just like you and me. Zombie-American is funny on a sketch level — it’s something you would’ve expected to see Helms do on a Halloween episode of The Daily Show — but it doesn’t delve too deeply into its subject; it wastes much of its last third on gags about how much Glen the zombie sucks at basketball. American Zombie is a whole other animal.
Grace Lee was previously best known for 2005’s The Grace Lee Project, in which the Korean-American documentarian went around finding lots of other people who shared her name. My guess is that she’s about to become a lot better-known for American Zombie, and not just because of the surefire comedy-horror angle. The script by Lee and Rebecca Sonnenshine is packed with convincing detail. When we visit the offices of ZAG — the Zombie Advocacy Group — there are various Altmanesque overheards, like “They can’t call you a brain-eater. That’s harassment.” ZAG’s leader is Joel (Al Vicente), pronounced “Yoel,” a very high-functioning zombie who tirelessly looks after the growing undead community in Los Angeles. Joel natters on, huffy and easily offended, like a zombie Adam Goldberg.
Other than perhaps Grace Lee (and maybe not even then, if you’re unfamiliar with her past work), there are no familiar faces in the movie, adding greatly to its verisimilitude. And the actors, including Suzy Nakamura as the sadly delusional Judy and Jane Edith Wilson as the artsy Lisa, make their zombies just human enough to gain our sympathy yet just strange enough to mark them as something other than human. The entire cast, really, seems filled out with people who effortlessly put their roles across. Nobody hams it up; when a scientist explains the zombie virus and how it works and how it spreads, it’s matter-of-fact and believable — she could be explaining the common cold.
American Zombie works on several levels of satire. What would a large city like Los Angeles do with a zombie population steadily approaching five digits? There are various mechanisms in place; Lee and Sonnenshine have really thought it through, right down to the psychologists who help zombies like Lisa access their rage over their violent deaths, the holistic medicine specialists who remove maggots from festering wounds, the private detectives hired by grieving families to move among the undead to track down any sons or daughters or parents who might’ve become one of them. I particularly enjoyed the minister who encourages zombies to join his bible study group, since Christianity has unique things to say to them — “Jesus was the original zombie,” he says. (Actually, that would be Lazarus, but never mind.)
Like the best satire, the movie saves its sharpest barbs for itself and its makers. Lee, playing herself, teams up with John Solomon to create a documentary portrait of this thriving, misunderstood community. Lee doesn’t want to do it at first, but once she’s in it, she’s committed to telling the truth. So is John, but he’s more interested in finding out what the zombies are hiding. What’s the deal with the blue fluid? What’s in the zombies’ fridges? And what’s this Live Dead thing, a three-day zombies-only event? What goes on there? Lee and Solomon and their small crew eventually gain access to Live Dead, and the movie turns disorienting and eventually creepy. There are obvious nods to The Blair Witch Project in the Live Dead footage, except that Lee actually manages to scare us. The scene in which a human crooner named Maude (Kasi Brown) favors the zombie crowd with a morbid tune, while the crew’s camera and sound equipment are almost too far away to pick up anything, is a startlingly Lynchian moment.
I’ve seen a couple of complaints about the movie. One concerns its length, and I suppose it feels a bit long in the middle (it’s only 91 minutes, though), though scene for scene I wouldn’t know what to cut out. The other is about the ending, which some have taken as a betrayal of characters we’ve been made to care about — but to me, that complaint just testifies to how well said characters are written and played. Lee’s satire is often affectionate, but in the end, she takes her gentle gloves off. The high-functioning zombies, it turns out, are savvy enough to manipulate the media, which, typified by Grace and her crew, are eager to paint a benevolent picture and ignore the danger signs. The zombies aren’t meant to symbolize minorities in real-life society. This is a horror movie, and in horror movies things suck and get worse and don’t care if you feel bad about that. I love horror and always love to welcome talented, intelligent filmmakers into the genre, but in this case I kind of hope Grace Lee is done with horror. Based on what she does with American Zombie, I want to see what she can do with other subjects, other genres. If she wants to turn her attention to other horror concepts, though, I won’t complain.