Frightfest 2014: Doc of the Dead (2014) Review

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Alexandre O. Philippe (The People vs. George Lucas) brings us another documentary, but this time turning his focus on the rotting stinking zombie and its place in the world of motion pictures.

Everyone knows what a zombie is, you can’t turn on a television without seeing a flesh munching ghoul these days. The whole genre has gone mainstream, with the likes of The Walking Dead taking television by storm, World War Z enticing audiences in cinemas, Dead Island, Left 4 Dead and Dead Rising making millions for the video game industry, and novels galore featuring the brain craving buggers that we know and love. It’s a big money deal now, put a zombie on your film cover and people will buy it, create a video game that allows you to blast the heads off of the living dead and people will play it. Hell, create a get-together in which people dress and these bleeding corpses and walk around a city moaning and groaning, and yes, people will show up and walk. Hey, it’s all the rage.

This film follows the progression and growth of the zombie, its invention, its underground appeal, the films that began the genre and its rise in popularity, leading to current day. The mixture of clips, interviews, film footage and photographs works well and the film flows in an easy-to-watch and entertaining manner, using humour in various ways to keep the film from becoming a “serious” look at zombies. The interviewees are an incredible variety of names from the genre, with names like Bruce Campbell, Simon Pegg, George A. Romero, Robert Kirkman, Sid Haig, Tom Savini and Max Brooks talking about the topic at hand, we know right away that we are getting top notch information from some of the best sources around. Romero in particular is a hoot to listen to and his observations about the booming popularity of the living dead are often hilarious.

The film covers the sleep-walking voodoo zombies, the Romero slow-walking ones, the fast and running kind from films like 28 Days Later and even, for a short moment, talks about the strange jumping-on-the-spot ones from Japan. There are discussions about the “correct” way for zombies to move, with Romero saying that his problem with fast moving ones is that “it makes no sense if they’re dead”. True George, very true.

It is an almost-impossible task to expect a film that is giving a brief run-down of an entire genre to include every film that has been released being given a mention, but there are notable exclusions here, especially titles such as Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters which is surely one of the most beloved titles in the entire zombie film genre. It is fair though, to some degree, because the film does a lot in its run-time of 81 minutes, and focuses on more than just the films. Unquestionably this film would have benefited from a longer running time, but for the length of what is on offer Philippe does a commendable job. With heavy focus on Romero’s films, Evil Dead, Shaun of the Dead, The Walking Dead and other major titles, the big boys are mostly covered.

Big omissions aside, there isn’t much wrong with this film, but there are times when the order of clips and discussions feels haphazard and slapdash. I felt like too much time was spent talking about some things while not enough time was spent on others, namely the cultural differences in the zombie character which would have been a very interesting thing to learn more about yet suffers from only a fleeting coverage, while the zombie walk segment, while entertaining, was longer than it needed to be. Still, the film shows just how massive zombies have become and how the dribbling decomposing mutant with human flesh hanging from its teeth has been embraced by the mainstream.

Flawed, yes, but entertaining and funny, Doc of the Dead will please anyone with even a fleeting interest in zombies. It is accessible, well researched and it highlights well how much the flesh eaters have evolved over the years. Zombies have entered and exited pop culture before, but this time it seems like the sheer volume of material available has driven it, like a sharpened hatchet, right into the heads of the general public and it is likely going to be around for a long time to come.

Doc of the Dead will screen at Film4 Frightfest in London between 21 – 25 August, 2014.

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