MAY 5, 2014
If a documentary's worth was measured in the number of A-list talking heads it got to discuss its subject, then Doc of the Dead would be a must-see. Over 80 or so minutes you get to hear Bruce Campbell, George Romero, Stuart Gordon, Simon Pegg, and even Alex Cox give their thoughts on the surging popularity of the zombie sub-genre, its history, and how their own contributions fit into this particular world (Campbell stresses that zombies and Deadites are different, but that the Evil Dead films have both). Unfortunately for its filmmakers, this is NOT how we judge a doc (or, at least, we shouldn't), but rather by how well it explores its topic or presents a new take on the subject - and in this regard it falls flat.
Now to be fair, I've read more on this topic and seen more films in the zombie sub-genre than the average person, so I don't go in expecting to learn much or even find out about an older film I missed along the way, though it's always a nice bonus if I do. For example, Going to Pieces explored the slasher sub-genre, which I'm even MORE "tuned into", and there were still a few nuggets of info I never knew before, and it was the first time I heard about Pieces, funnily enough. But apart from some indies that don't look all that exciting, there was nothing here to discover; if anything there were some major oversights - not sure how Plague of the Zombies (1966, i.e. a couple years before NOTLD) got skipped over, or why Zombieland wasn't given any credit for helping to bring them to the mainstream. To be fair, it's more of an exploration of all kinds of zombie culture (books, the popularity of "zombie walks", etc), but when they spend time going into non essential elements like the Big Daddy zombie from Land of the Dead, it's strange to see such glaring oversights when they're specifically focusing on how zombies made the transition from voodoo-driven "drones" in films like White Zombie to the overexposed phenomenon they are today.
But that's also part of the problem - the movie lacks focus, attempting to cover far too many things within a 90 minute feature. Worse, there's no flow to the topics at all; they will just suddenly drop one topic and go into another. I get why you'd want to get to footage of (blockbuster) World War Z as soon as possible, but why do they bring up the real world voodoo practices (one of the film's better segments) long after they discuss White Zombie and the like? Wouldn't it make more sense to segue from the real world practices to the films that drew from these traditions, instead of going back nearly a half hour later? And why does the entire last 20 minutes or so focus on zombie survivalist folks, a topic likely to bore an audience that was drawn in by the likes of Romero and Pegg (who barely appear at this point)? It's funny to see Tom Savini dismiss them for being "prepared" for a zombie outbreak with their supplies and bunkers, but for rational thinking folks, all this does is give them an excuse to shut the movie off prematurely.
And again, by jumping around so much, they can't really dig deep into any given topic, so I'm not even sure who the audience for the movie is. I joked on Twitter that it was probably for the people who still need that scene in a zombie movie where they have to "figure out" that a shot to the head is the only way to do them in (usually, with respect to Return of the Living Dead), but that's actually kind of true. If you've seen maybe one zombie movie or heard good things about Walking Dead (which, unsurprisingly, is given lots of attention), it might be an OK primer for what is a very expansive topic, but they don't make a strong enough case for why they've endured, or why any of the specific things are important. Italian zombie movies are skipped entirely, so if you didn't know better this movie would have you believe that George Romero's Dead films were pretty much the only ones that existed between 1968 and 2002 (when 28 Days Later and Resident Evil came along), and they barely even make a case for why HIS films are so significant (Dawn in particular is glossed over). There's very little in the way of critical analysis of the sub-genre's heavy-hitters; if the movie is aimed at complete n00bs on the subject, fine - but why aren't you making an effort to explain why so many people worship at the altar of Dawn of the Dead?
See, that's my problem with these "jack of all trades, master of none" style documentaries - it's fine to show that there's more to zombies than just some old movies and an AMC show, but when you're just scratching the surface, there has to be something in there to convince the audience to dig deeper on their own. Had I not known anything about the undead, and just watched this movie, I'd walk away with the understanding that people sure like zombies, but precious little explanation WHY. And due to all of the topic skipping, I wouldn't even know where to start to learn more - they don't even differentiate between the value of something like Day of the Dead and the XXX Walking Dead parody (which features Rick convincing Carl to fuck a zombie). Speaking of clips, it seems the director didn't take advantage of the fair use law when it comes to making his points; how else to explain why his examples of werewolf and slasher films are Werewolf in a Girl's Dormitory and Scream Bloody Murder - hardly the sort of "go-to" examples one would use unless all they had their disposal was a Mill Creek budget pack. Also, not for nothing, but getting Max Brooks for your film and showing clips from World War Z without going into how much different the film is from his book just seems like a giant wasted opportunity.
That's actually the movie in a nutshell: there are so many topics that could probably make for a good doc on their own, and Doc of the Dead glosses over them in favor of just throwing more shit at us (like Campbell officiating a zombie wedding). It's fun at times, but by refusing to spend more than 5 minutes on anything before abruptly jumping into another topic, it serves no real purpose. It's basically 90 minutes of scattered anecdotes; if you are still inclined to check it out, know you can hit the chapter skip button (or just shut it off after a while) and you won't really miss out on anything of significant value.
What say you?