A 12-year-old girl's whimsical determination to become a filmmaker is chronicled in "Zombie Girl."

A 12-year-old Austin girl’s whimsical determination to become a filmmaker — by making a feature-length zombie epic — is chronicled in “Zombie Girl: The Movie.” While subject Emily Hagins’ precocious pluck is admirable and endearing, what lends the docu its dramatic edge is the way in which her mother goes from supportive to meddlesome over the course of the no-budget horror pic’s production. Traveling the fest circuit since Slamdance (where it won the Spirit Award) sans distribution, the doc nevertheless merits a shot at niche theatrical, cable and DVD exposure.

A movie fanatic ever since her repeated viewings of the “Lord of the Rings” films, Emily was inspired to try her hand at filmmaking when she saw rude ‘n’ crude 2003 Aussie zom-com “Undead.” Responding to a fan letter, Peter Jackson himself put her in touch with Ain’t It Cool News’ Harry Knowles (an Austin resident), who in turn got her an assistant gig on a local indie horror feature. That experience prompted her to write a first-draft script for “Pathogen” — at age 10.

Two years later, the remarkably dedicated Emily was ready to actually shoot her zombie pic — casting schoolmates, shooting on weekends and holidays, using gore effects mixed from ordinary foodstuffs in the family kitchen.

But this “fun project” fast becomes complicated. And mom Megan’s support of her child’s dream, which initially seems well-intentioned if overindulgent (can’t she just let Emily make learning-experience mistakes on her own?), turns weird as an exhausted yet highly opinionated mum increasingly exercises her own frustrated creative impulses.

Graphic designer Megan confesses, “This isn’t my day job. I’d like it to be.” Emily, contrastingly relaxed if disorganized — what 12-year-old is detail-oriented enough to assume a unit production manager‘s job, let alone those of writer-director-cinematographer? — politely allows, “My mom and I don’t share the same vision.”

There’s a bit of “Gypsy”-style backstage-mothering here, with the gifted child having to frequently take care of and calm a parent whose dedication smacks more than a bit of frustrated self-expression. Only very late in “Zombie Girl” do we discover a poignant partial explanation for Megan’s arguably excessive involvement.

“I think she’s the coolest mom ever,” Emily says. One senses how mature and generous she is to flatter a needy parent so.

Climaxing with the Alamo Draft House Cinema premiere of “Pathogen” (which is available on DVD), the pic’s coda finds the now thoroughly poised, quite beautiful 16-year-old bowing her second feature — the much more professionally crafted and acted ghost story “The Retelling.”

Team-directed docu’s fly-on-the-wall perspective is sharply edited and technically astute within verite bounds.

Zombie Girl: The Movie

Production

A Bob B. Bob Prods., Vacdoomed Prods., Part Olson Pictures production. Produced by Justin Johnson, Aaron Marshall, Erik Mauck. Directed by Justin Johnson, Aaron Marshall, Erik Mauck.

Crew

Camera (color, DV-to-DigiBeta), Johnson, Mauck; editor, Marshall; music, Christopher Thomas; sound, Zack Howard; additional camera, Alberto Guevara. Reviewed on DVD, Oct. 13, 2009, San Francisco. (In Mill Valley, Slamdance, AFI Dallas, Hot Docs film festivals; Comic-Con.) Running time: 91 MIN.

With

Emily Hagins, Megan Hagins, Jerry Hagins, Harry Knowles, Tiger Darrow, Rose Kent-McGlew, Alec Herskowitz, Tony Vespe, Tim League.
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