Bruce Campbell, Chad Herschberger, cinema, co-writers, Doc of the Dead, documentaries, documentary, film reviews, films, George Romero, goofy, Greg Nicotero, horror films, interviews, Max Brooks, Movies, Night of the Living Dead, pop culture, Robert Kirkman, SImon Pegg, The Walking Dead, Tom Savini, voodoo, writer-director, zombie invasion, zombies
Sometimes, it’s not what you say but how you say it. Take, for example, documentary filmmaker Alexandre O. Philippe’s Doc of the Dead (2014). Chock full of fun interviews, interesting tidbits and plenty of in-depth history about the genesis and evolution of the zombie in both film and pop culture, there’s a lot to like here. Despite all of the good information, however, Philippe’s film still nearly sinks under the weight of its frequently flippant, mocking tone, especially when the film drops any “serious” pretensions and devolves into a series of silly zombie invasion spoofs and tedious musical skits.
When Doc of the Dead isn’t taking cheap potshots at the sillier aspects of its subject matter (zombie survivalists, zombie porn and the like), it’s quite an interesting, fast-paced film, if decidedly lightweight. Philippe and co-writer/editor Chad Herschberger utilize the standard formula of plenty of “talking head” interviews (George Romero, Simon Pegg, Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman, Mel Brooks’ son/World War Z scribe Max Brooks, et al) alongside lots of film clips and the odd historical/epistemologial segment to give a pretty thorough overview of zombies in Western film, TV and pop culture.
I stress “Western,” since the filmmakers manage to completely bypass such admittedly rich zombie treasure troves as the Italian gore films of the ’70s and ’80s and any of the over-the-top Asian zombie films that have cropped up in the past decade or so. While this would have, undoubtedly, broadened the focus of the film, I can’t help but feel that at least some mention of these other films would have been appropriate, if for no other reason than to point out how universal this particular horror trend has become in the past 40 years.
Foreign omissions notwithstanding, my biggest and most critical complaint regarding Doc of the Dead has to be all of the silly digressions, goofy skits and tongue-in-cheek stupidity that sits uncomfortably next to the more serious scholarship. I’m not claiming that all documentaries need to be serious or even that a zombie-themed documentary could ever be completely serious…we are talking about re-animated corpses, after all, so some measure of suspension of disbelief is required, no matter how you tackle the subject. I will firmly state, however, that the split-tone in Philippe’s film made it impossible for me to ever be completely on-board. For every cool story related by Romero or interesting observation (zombie cinema is one of the only horror genres to develop from folklore rather than literature, for example, which is pretty interesting, when you think about it), there’s a dumb segment involving amateur re-imaginings of Night of the Living Dead (1968), a zombie music video or silly interview with survivalists about the best weapons to use in case of a zombie attack.
The biggest problem with this tactic, quality of the goofy segments notwithstanding (and the quality really can be extraordinarily shabby, especially when compared to the relative polish of the rest of the film), is that it makes it seem as if the filmmakers don’t really care about their subject matter. This was the same team that put together The People vs George Lucas (2010), so they definitely have a reputation for irreverence, but the goofy tone just seems out-of-place most of the time. I found myself enjoying the “serious” parts of the film enough that I wanted more consistency but the inherently inconsistent nature of the film just made me tired and frustrated, by the end: I wanted more scholarship but the filmmakers wanted more “funny” scenes of badly made-up zombies stumbling around in domestic scenarios.
Ultimately, I didn’t hate Doc of the Dead: there’s too much good stuff here to completely write off the film. I just wish that Philippe and crew had been able to maintain a more consistent tone or, barring that, were able to craft something as humorous and entertaining as Mark Hartley’s Machete Maidens Unleashed (2010), which managed to be both scholarly and flat-out funny. Fans of zombies in film, TV and pop culture will find plenty to enjoy about Doc of the Dead (although most fanatics will have heard most of this stuff before) but the film is too lightweight to make much of an impact beyond the true believers…and the truly patient.