Following the delightful “Grace Lee Project,” about women sharing her common Asian-American name, documentarian Lee again plays herself in a first narrative feature effort. “American Zombie” — which has her making an ersatz nonfiction work about another “misunderstood subculture” — ekes out just mild amusement combining two concepts over-exercised of late, the mockumentary and the comic spin on zombie-pic conventions. Post-fest circuit, pic’s best chances will be with genre fans on DVD, as its overall impact is too soft to warrant theatrical exposure in the wake of several brasher, funnier horror spoofs.
Lee is reluctantly roped into making the ostensible docu by John (“Saturday Night Live” writing staffer John Solomon), whose interest in the more lurid sides of zombiedom she dismisses — perhaps unwisely — as mere “stereotyping.”
Not only do zombies, aka revenants, walk among us, but there are three kinds: ferals, the shuffling, familiarly braindead movie type; those capable of simple, repetitive tasks (thus making ideal sweatshop employees); and high-functioning individuals who’d be indistinguishable from average citizens but for their trademark pallor and occasional signs of bodily decay.
Pic intros several of the latter stripe, including case-pleading ZAG (Zombie Advocacy Group) founder Joel (Al Vicente); slackerish convenience-store clerk Ivan (Austin Basis); New Age-y florist Lisa (Jane Edith Wilson); and customer-service rep Judy (Suzy Nakamura), who’s so anxious to fit into mainstream society she barely admits being a zombie at all. They seem to be a representative cross-section of L.A. humanity, which, pic purports, includes up to 10,000 undead. Though forthcoming on most subjects, however, none will directly address the meat of the matter: Do zombies, including these nice, civilized ones, still dine out on live human flesh? Or is that just another culturally insensitive myth?
Lee has fun ribbing the political correctitude of indie docu makers (like herself), and pic boasts scattered inspired moments, as when one revenant protests, “Jesus was the original zombie.” (Because he, too, rose from the dead.) But more often, “American Zombie” comes off as a low-budget stab at Christopher Guest-style satire that (not unlike Guest’s own recent efforts) doesn’t develop sharp enough situations, characterizations or plot structure to fully exploit a promising comic idea.
Eventually Grace, John and the film crew get permission to attend the zombies-only Live Dead Festival, a Burning Man-parodic desert event, but are nonetheless barred from witnessing certain rituals. Worst suspicions are confirmed in the end, though even here, pic lacks the scripted wit or splatstick vulgarity to achieve more than shaggy-dog-story bemusement.
Usual jerky-cam mock-doc aesthetic is applied to a feature that’s competently made but comes off as tepid against such truly hilarious recent horror-comedies as “Shaun of the Dead” and “Evil Aliens.” If Lee intended primarily to spoof documentary conventions, she should have chosen a theme less commercially overexposed — and worked harder at making it more than just sorta-kinda humorous.