Zombies have now become as omnipresent in our culture as they are to the protagonists of their films. Just like the swarms of lifeless hordes surrounding a scrappy group of survivors, we are endlessly inundated with films, games, books, and merchandising dealing with the living dead. Zombies have become so ubiquitous that they are now the flavorful dash of spice added to all sorts of things, from Marvel superheroes to Jane Austen — none can escape the decaying reach of these profitable shambling monsters. But where did these decomposing cash cows come from? Why have they persisted and even flourished after so many decades? Doc of the Dead, Alexandre Philippe’s lively documentary, explores the origins of zombies in popular culture, tracing their various mutations through the years and how they have escaped from b-movie prison into the mainstream (and even Main Street with the popularity of the zombie crawl and the zombie run). While Philippe gets a group of enthusiastic and knowledgeable people to weigh in on the success of this sub-genre, a dearth of dissenting opinions and failure to mention some of the negative elements of the culture makes the film lack some of the punch it could have had.
Charting the beginnings of the zombie mythos — starting in African and Haitian traditions along with American films like 1932’s White Zombie — Philippe and his impressive roster of interviewees examine how a traditional boogeyman that symbolized slavery proliferated in the modern era to become the catch all metaphor for whatever fears dominate audiences in the moment, and currently as simply a generic force of rotting opposition that must be survived. Philippe has gathered such icons as George Romero, Max Brooks, Robert Kirkman, Alex Cox, Simon Pegg, along with a handful of zombie scholars, cultural anthropologists, survivalists, a professor of entomology and biology, and a Supreme Vodou Houngan/biochemist. Intercut between very entertaining and informative interviews from each of the talking heads are images from various zombie movies, TV shows, pornos, conventions, comic books, and zombie live events.
Doc of the Dead provides a great overview of the phenomenon from its inception and the various permutations, and unlike many of the characterizations of its subject matter (yes, the slow vs. fast zombie debate is examined), the film moves at a quick pace that is always engaging. Philippe has made a conversation about zombies by a bunch of horror fiends into an entertaining affair with plenty of great footage from other sources, as well as some really well shot sequences done specifically for this film. Viewers will likely leave the film with at least one more movie they’ve learned about that they’ll want to check out.
The film stumbles, though, by not taking on the darker aspects of the fandom. The film examines how zombies have leaked from entertainment areas, like video games, into real world weaponry such as combat knives advertised as being perfect for zombies, or mannequins that bleed and have flesh coating that is “99% accurate” to the texture of human skin and muscle. It’s unclear how Philippe feels about this offshoot; when the target mannequin manufacturer is listing the types they make — regular zombie, terrorist, Nazi… and ex-girlfriend — it’s left there as a punctuation without any commentary. There is no attention paid, or mention made, of the vicarious element of these zombie films/games — the wish-fulfillment of wholesale slaughter and violence, without “actually” killing anything. While the zombies are analyzed as representing consumerism, government breakdown, and/or epidemics, the protagonists who mow through the throngs aren’t given much thought by any of the subjects. One of the main pitches of Doc of the Dead is “how would You survive a zombie apocalypse?” It seems odd not to reflect on the fact that you’ll eventually have to come to terms with destroying another person (even a zombified one). It’s simply a given that you’ll obliterate zombies, even those people you once loved.
The other aspect of the film that comes up short is how every subject on the screen discards the idea of oversaturation of zombies in pop culture. Perhaps it’s because many of them depend on the phenomenon to get paid (zombie scholars may not get invited to so many conventions in a world obsessed with CHUDs, for example), or maybe they are all so inside the bubble they can’t perceive its edges. But it would’ve been nice for some speculation as to how or when this craze would come to an end, and what will be waiting there to supplant it.
Doc of the Dead is a great primer on the tenets and foundations of zombies in popular culture. While going over a lot of history and exploring multiple influences, it never feels boring or condescending. Philippe is able to pack in a lot of people, opinions, and elements of a widely expanding subculture without feeling like something is being left out — for the most part. One of the elements that made Philippe’s previous film, The People vs. George Lucas, work so well is that it felt even handed and was willing to shine a light on the good and bad aspects of fandom. It’s a shame that the same objectivity to the negative parts of a subgenre weren’t explored. However, this film is insightful enough, while remaining entertaining and novel, that it suggests Philippe could be one of the great pop culture documentarians and I look forward to seeing the next dark corner of nerdery he explores.