SXSW Film Review – Doc of the Dead
Doc of the Dead
I think we can say with certainty that the Zombie Apocalypse has already happened.
They are everywhere. Movies, television, video games, literature, toys, and merchandising – they’ve pretty much invaded the entirety of mainstream culture. What was once considered cult status has now ballooned to the point of over-saturation. The most popular cable TV show today features zombies (The Walking Dead). And just last year, they entered the realm of romantic comedy (Warm Bodies). So how exactly did this come to be, and what is it about zombies that attract such fascination? I’m surprised documentaries like Alexandre O. Philippe’s Doc of the Dead (2014) are not more abundant. Tracing from its earliest roots in folklore to modern blockbuster fare, this entertaining film goes in depth, examining our favorite undead beings.
Featuring a wealth of interviews from the likes of George A. Romero to Simon Pegg, Philippe and his team put a ton of enthusiasm into the material, bouncing back and forth through the history of zombies and their role in today’s society. Perhaps no other fictional monster (aside from maybe vampires) has made such a footprint in our culture. Tons of people are brought in to share their expertise on the subject – not just writers, actors, and filmmakers. We have historians and research coordinators, convention leaders, and participants within the scientific community. Anybody that can provide insight is given the opportunity to have his or her say. Watching them speak, we can see how excited they get and how appealing the subject is overall.
The documentary works when it covers the mythology of zombies. An interesting revelation deals with their origins in African and Haitian culture. The idea of “the undead” is derived straight from voodoo, and the misconceptions regarding race relations. In Haiti, there are stories of witch doctors, and poisons used to control the minds and actions of human beings, essentially turning them into slaves. What a crazy thought: the fact that what we see today came from people’s misconstrued perceptions of other races and the institution of slavery. What many consider to be the founding film of zombies in cinema, White Zombie (1932), isn’t about the undead at all, but of soul capturing and body possession.
Another strong element is how the lines are drawn in the depiction of zombies throughout cinema. Although the basic rules are pretty consistent (living dead, flesh eating, contagious, BRAIIIINNS), storytellers have certainly taken liberties to change them in whatever manner they see appropriate. They have routinely been used to reflect society. From the 60s into the 70s, they dealt with the deconstruction of the nuclear family and fear of Vietnam (Night of the Living Dead, 1968). From the 70s into the 80s, it was the loss of identity and emptiness of consumerism (Dawn of the Dead, 1978). And into the 2000s, the fear of disease and widespread infection (28 Days Later…, 2002). This is all great material, like a history lesson I wished would go on and on.
But the best parts talk about the connection zombies have with fans. Why do they care so much about them? Why do we see people dressing up as zombies and going on marathons, showcases, and public talks? Except for the obvious answer (because it’s fun), there is a level of camaraderie that comes from being a part of all this. When a person is bitten by a zombie, they become one of the many. Since they are so prevalent today, they’ve become domesticated. They’re safe now – not just a vessel to incite terror, but a means to bring people together. There’s a scene where Bruce Campbell oversees a zombie-themed wedding, and in another a young boy displays his adept knowledge of them. In a weird way, these people celebrate life by being so involved with these ciphers of death.
Of course, a lot of this is already known, and for those who are zombie lovers, most of what is presented will be common knowledge. The film starts to lose steam in the third act, as the narrative focuses more on how a zombie invasion could happen in real life, and the measures taken by some to prepare for it. Conversations comparing hordes of zombies to hordes of ants and other insects aren’t as fascinating as the earlier interviews. In the worst segment included, Jonathan London of Geekscape (who helped produce the doc) goes to extreme measures to test out a water purification system in the event of worldwide fallout. It’s at this point where we realize the material is beginning to wear thin, and scenes like this feel like padding to help fill in the runtime.
Although what we’re given isn’t anything new, and despite fizzling to a stop instead of going out with a bang, Doc of the Dead is still a fun trip down this particular road. It’s energetic, informative, and just a darn good time. I liked it – this is the kind of film I wouldn’t mind seeing more than once.