Doc of the Dead: SXSW Review

Entertaining but lightweight pop-culture doc

Alexandre O. Philippe offers a little of everything for zombie lovers.

AUSTIN — Proving that there was life in the undead even before George Romero came along, Alexandre O. Phillippe's Doc of the Dead is a zippy and often funny look at a cultural obsession whose current popularity would have been hard to predict. Covering lots of ground but not staying anywhere for long, the film does offer tidbits even genre buffs may not know but falls short of feeling definitive. Scheduled to air March 15 on EPIX, it will play best on the small screen.

PHOTOS: The Scene at SXSW 2014

Phillippe, who made The People Vs. George Lucas, plays again to the fanboy faithful: Bruce Campbell, Simon Pegg, Tom Savini and others make knowing appearances onscreen, sometimes acting in cutesy segments simulating a zombie outbreak. But the doc isn't solely focused on movies: Zombie researchers (they exist, apparently) detail the origins of tales of the undead, and make the interesting point that while Frankenstein and Dracula had literary roots, the zombie traces back to anonymous oral folklore. An interesting but too-brief chapter discusses Haitian lore and real-world cases in which people drugged into forced slavery might have moved like magically animated cadavers.

When Hollywood first took a crack at the legends, in 1932's White Zombie, it bizarrely transplanted a gothic castle to Haiti, where the action took place. Fifties sci-fi flicks flirted with the undead, but everyone agrees to credit Romero for the modern zombie. The director is endearingly candid here, admitting that he didn't even know what to call the monsters in his seminal Night of the Living Dead (he referred to them as "ghouls") and didn't invent the canonical rules governing their behavior (cue age-old debate over fast vs. slow zombies) until he made that film's sequel.

After whipping through the contemporary outbreak of flesh-eaters — 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, The Walking Dead — Phillippe spends more time than is needed on Zombie Walks and other ways fans roleplay scary-fun fantasies off-screen. This section gets tiresome as we get around to entrepreneurs selling gear based on the idea that a real-world outbreak is imminent. But a brief encounter with actual scientists who discuss ways similarly destructive pandemics might occur contains the seeds of a fascinating longer program.


Production Company: Exhibit A Pictures

Director: Alexandre O. Phillippe

Screenwriters: Alexandre O. Phillippe, Chad Herschberger

Producers: Robert Muratore, Kerry Deignan Roy

Director of photography: Robert Muratore

Editor: Chad Herschberger

No rating, 81 minutes

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