At the 2006 True/False documentary film festival in Columbia, Mo., I attended a showing of “The Grace Lee Project,” which details one woman’s quest to meet people all over the country that share her name and discover how much they resemble the Grace Lee “stereotype” (reserved, good student, religious, plays piano).
Lee, who was born and raised in Columbia but now lives in Los Angeles, was on hand to present her film. The audience was delighted to see a hometown girl’s success, and during the question and answer session, someone asked what her next film was about. She simply replied, “Zombies.” Everyone kind of chuckled; I think they thought she was kidding. After all, how could a documentarian shoot a film about zombies, which populate horror movies and comic books but not real life?
But, no, she wasn’t kidding. The result is “American Zombie,” a new addition to the Joplin Public Library’s DVD collection. And it’s more of a mockumentary than a documentary, if you will.
Grace Lee and her film-school friend John Solomon portray themselves. They are filmmakers on the trail of a new minority in American society: the living dead, or revenants. The premise is that many people have begun to reanimate after suffering a violent death, the result of a virus contracted sometime during their lives. Experts have classified zombies according to their sentience and ability to function in human society. Although some are “feral” (like George Romero’s zombies), many are able to hold jobs, have relationships and enjoy hobbies.
Grace wants to create a serious portrait of what it means to be a zombie in today’s America. John, on the other hand, has a fixation on blood and guts and a more sensationalist bent. Early on, he asks a bewildered interviewee, “What about, like, human flesh? Do you eat that?” Her response is to offer him a snack of soy butter and whole-wheat crackers, more in keeping with her organic vegan lifestyle.
They interview a cross-section of zombie society: Ivan, a skateboarding convenience store clerk who self-publishes his own ’zine; Judy, who works for a company that makes healthy energy bars and drinks, and loves kittens and scrapbooking; Joel, the founder of Zombies Advocacy Group, or ZAG, who lives by the motto, “We here. We’re dead. Get used it”; and Lisa, a florist who specializes in funeral arrangements and has a passion for string art.
But despite their apparent normalcy, there’s something not quite right about these four — aside from the fact that they’re zombies. As “American Zombie” progressed beyond these initial interviews, I kept waiting for something to turn Grace and John’s expectations upside down.
The filmmakers wrangle an invitation to Live Dead, traditionally a zombies-only festival out in the middle of nowhere — think Burning Man for the undead. It’s a three-day celebration of art, music and overall zombie-ness. What Grace and John see and experience at Live Dead changes the course of the documentary and their lives. The tension really starts to ratchet up at that point; there are noises in the night and mysterious events, and the zombies they thought they knew turn evasive.
After fleeing the festival, Grace and John revisit their subjects with the blinders off. They find them more sinister and guarded now, and indeed, one of them has changed drastically — a change that will forever alter the lives of the filmmakers.
“American Zombie” is just plain fun. I love all things zombie, so it appealed to me as a comic horror film. But I was also struck by how Lee and Solomon explore the often complex notion of identity in contemporary American society. What does it mean to be a zombie (or a minority), and what are the dreams, expectations and frustrations of such a group, particularly one that experiences discrimination? Conversely, for a human (or a member of the majority), what are the ramifications of a vastly tolerant viewpoint? Is it possible to be too accepting and, consequently, have an unrealistic perception of things?
Just some ideas to consider, from the mind of a mid-Missouri girl, while you’re enjoying a zombie flick.
Lisa E. Brown is administrative assistant of the Joplin Public Library.