Many critics have been eager to call the 2007 mockumentary AMERICAN ZOMBIE "the movie DIARY OF THE DEAD should've been," but I'll have to disagree. Not because DIARY is a better film--personally, I think ZOMBIE tops not only Romero's recent film, but similar mock-docs like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and CLOVERFIELD--but because it's a case of apples and oranges; their formats may be the same, but these are two entirely different films.
Maybe it's all in the layers. DIARY operated best on the surface as a slick, thrill-oriented example of genre entertainment, but with AMERICAN ZOMBIE director Grace Lee finds the human side of the undead. The result is a deeper, multi-faceted film that deals its hand slowly, never quite revealing its true nature until it's got you in its grip.
The movie stars Lee and cinematographer John Solomon, playing fictitious versions of themselves, as they compile footage for a documentary on the living dead in America. In this alternate reality zombies are a significant yet reviled and misunderstood segment of the population, and the documentary's goal is to not only put a face on the dead, but to change the public's perspective and make them more acceptable.
The filmmakers follow four different zombies: Ivan, a likable slacker doofus who works at a convenience store; Judy, a perpetually perky customer service rep for an organic foods company; Joel, the militant organizer of a zombie-rights group; and Lisa, a New Age artist. We get to hear how they became zombies, what their day-to-day existences are like, what they hope the future holds, even their tentative romances with the living (Ivan's even got a zombie-groupie girlfriend).
Even at this primary level AMERICAN ZOMBIE works extremely well. The actors skillfully blend fiction and reality, the filmmakers are far less annoying than those BLAIR WITCH fucks, and unlike DIARY or CLOVERFIELD (which never transcended their faux-reality trappings), it feels like a genuine documentary. Lee manages to fit in a subtle commentary on the film-making process (like when Lee and Solomon debate using narrative techniques for a documentary or how far reality can be manipulated) and the nature of collaboration as well. But the movie takes us a step further, slowly working in certain details--such as the recurring motif of voids, and the presence of vials of blue liquid in the zombies' refrigerators--that foreshadow ZOMBIE's shift into darker territory.
The dry, black humor that runs throughout the film gradually takes a backseat as Lee and Solomon try to gain access to Live Dead, a zombie-only festival that takes place every year (and generates all sorts of ghastly rumors about what really goes on). A considerable portion of the film takes place there as the filmmakers are (reluctantly) allowed in, and it's here that Lee's strength as a storyteller kicks in. A steadily mounting sense of unease permeates the proceedings as Lee and Solomon interview increasingly wary participants; previous details are brought to the fore, and as the film crew begins to learn just what goes on the suspense is expertly ratcheted. (Lee stumbles a bit as she tries a little too hard to recreate a BLAIR WITCH-style atmosphere, but this minor misstep does not impact the build-up of this segment.) The Live Dead climax, in which the festival's secrets are finally revealed, is a beautifully understated moment of horror, a scene which epitomizes the concept that what you don't see is far more terrifying than what you do. An excellent, chilling tableaux.
The down side is that it tends to make the film's resolution a little anticlimactic as each characters' storyline is wrapped up. But Lee finishes well, if not perfectly. We see the doc's subjects going on with their lives, all of them affected by Live Dead, especially Judy, whose upbeat demeanor has been changed by what she's seen, both at the festival and in her life. Her transformation is the most disturbing note of the movie's finale, unfortunately overshadowed by the more dramatic, "tragic" depiction of Solomon's last-minute zombie bite; yet thanks to the multiple layers Lee has placed AMERICAN ZOMBIE ends on a quietly shattering note.
Simply put, AMERICAN ZOMBIE is the best living dead film of the decade. Miss it at your peril.