Doc Of The Dead

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Doc Of The Dead
"It's not quite as comprehensive as might have been hoped, but it still has a lot to say and a lot of fun doing it."

The zombie film: it's a genre that won't die, coming back again and again even when viewers are sure there can be no more life left in it. What has given it this resilience? How did it evolve and how did it come to be so influential in our culture? Doc Of The Dead sets out to answer these questions. It's not quite as comprehensive as might have been hoped, but it still has a lot to say and a lot of fun doing it.

There are three things most fans look for in a film like this: great clips, famous interviewees, and insight. Doc Of The Dead does very well on the former, aided by excellent editing. It's not bad on interviewees and it's passable when it comes to insight. Simon Pegg gives the most entertaining and pitiable interviews, revealing that he made Shaun Of The Dead in an attempt to exorcise nightmares that have only got worse since; if half of what he says here is true, he might want to seek therapy. Alex Cox is a nice addition to the line-up, displaying his usual incisive wit and reflecting the film's punkish aesthetic. Although it does plenty of pontificating, this is not a film to overlook the cheerfully silly side of the genre. It's nice to see Return Of The Living Dead get due respect.

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For the most part, the film concentrates on modern, post-Romero zombies, dwelling only briefly on White Zombie and its ilk, with a look at the real history of voodoo zombification and the racist distortions made by filmmakers of that era. Appropriate tribute is paid to Night Of The Living Dead for launching the modern zombie era and there's an interesting, if lightweight, look at the deliberately anti-racist approach of that film, but in the context of these issues it's odd not to see proper attention paid to films like Zombie Flesh Eaters which overlap the two traditions. The most glaring omission, however, concerns Christianity in zombie films ("When there's no more room in Hell, the dead shall walk the Earth"). The transition from ritually created zombies, through pollution-created zombies to the now predominant notion of the zombie plague gets fair treatment, but shying away from the spiritual means something of the deliberate mystery of Seventies and early Eighties zombies is lost, and a major strand in the early [Rec] films overlooked.

There's an attempt here to grant the zombie genre special status by arguing that Frankenstein and Dracula had literary roots whilst zombies have emerged, like some kind of cannibalistic working lass heroes (morlocks, anyone?) from oral folklore. The fact that Dracula was born out of centuries old peasant tales is missed, and this is indicative of the kind of over-hasty theorising to be found throughout the film. It cannot be faulted for ambition, however, and it's much stronger when exploring the ways the notion of the zombie has penetrated modern culture. Some fans will have the chance to look out for themselves or their friends on zombie walks. The creative opportunities these present are celebrated visually even if the overlap between horror fans and creators doesn't quite seem to have been grasped. There's a look at popular zombie merchandise and the way that children have learned to love a genre once demonised as too scary even for adults. We also meet some zombie survivalists, though we don't see much of how their skills have helped them deal with other kinds of disaster; and there's an opportunity for epidemiologists to warn us that a zombie plague is not, really, altogether outside the realm of possibility.

Interspersing the film clips and theorising are some fresh dramatic scenes which are not always successful but do benefit from interesting casting that will amuse fans. The film benefits from a stonking soundtrack which emphasises the joyful side of a genre which, despite its graveyard trappings, is anything but grim. Whilst it may not be the definitive documentary it aspired to be, Doc Of The Dead is a lot of fun and most fans will love it.

Reviewed on: 17 Mar 2015
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A documentary exploring the zombie genre.


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