Doc of the Dead (2014)

Review first published by Grolsch FilmWorks

With the zombies of cinema, it is a numbers game. Typically shuffling, putrescent and none too smart, zombies pose only a small threat as individuals. Yet en masse they easily overwhelm their hapless prey – prey whose better functioning brains mark them out as fodder, and whose superior fleetness of foot (no longer always a given) cannot last forever. Zombies have over the years been made to embody all manner of social anxieties, but one constant has been the fear of the hungry, baying, irrepressible, irresistible mob. Most fans of horror have mixed feelings about the zombie subgenre: nearly all will have great affection for the living dead, but most will also confess to a certain weariness with what has, in the last decade, become a very overcrowded market. Just as there is in the end no escaping zombies, their films too have become unavoidable, leading the creatures to pervade all parts of our culture.

So this ought to be the perfect climate in which to investigate a highly infectious phenomenon, which has passed from African and Haitian folklore through early castle gothic (with a colonial twist), only to be reinvented in 1968 by George A. Romero and to become, slowly but surely, the mass monster movement we have today, visible not just in cinemas, but on television, in videogames, in advertising, toys, even in porn – and, increasingly, in ‘zombie walks’ on the street. Director Alexandre O. Philippe, who has past form with fan-focused documentaries Earthlings: Ugly Bags of Mostly Water (2004) and The People Vs. George Lucas (2010), is well qualified to tackle this topic. In Doc of the Dead, he assembles an impressive range of key directors, actors, authors, cultural historians and scientists to lay down (or open up) the lore, to debate the old fast-vs.-slow or are-the-infected-really-zombies? chestnuts, to offer a scattergun chronicle of zombies’ origins and shifting significance, and to discuss what a real zombie(-like) apocalypse might be – and be like.

As a piece of (sub)cultural studies, Doc of the Dead is both entertaining and informative. The problem is, zombies have now so thoroughly dominated the cultural landscape that the apocalypse has not only already happened many times over, but has also given rise to a secondary epidemic of documentary meta-materials. Coming after, e.g., Donna Davies’ made-for-TV Zombiemania (2008), Mike Wafer’s Zombies: The Truth (2010) and Rob Kuhns’ Birth of the Living Dead (2013), Philippe’s film, for all its impressive specs, seems a bit like a footnote on a footnote – or perhaps just like overkill. Still, as a whistle-stop tour of zombieland, Doc of the Dead covers a lot of ground – and if it is not the first exegesis of the undead, you can be sure it will not be the last either. Zombie documentaries, you see, like zombies themselves, will eventually wear us down through sheer numbers.

Anton Bitel