The movie brat spirit is alive and well, judging by the determination of Emily Hagins, the twelve-year-old subject of “Zombie Girl: The Movie.” With the help of family, friends and a surprisingly generous grant, Hagins managed to complete a feature-length undead saga at a time when most kids are grappling with homework and puberty. Although clearly in its early stages, Hagins’s vision provokes more curiosity than unintentional humor. She’s not a child prodigy — nobody refers to her as the next Mozart or Spielberg — but nonetheless manages to relentlessly pursue her directorial vision. The result proves that there’s no age limit on cinematic expression.
Coaching performances from her parents, friends and supportive members of Austin’s film community, Hagins charms her older colleagues with her strong inclination toward mature entries in the horror genre. She writes a fan letter to an amused Peter Jackson, who sends her to Austin local Harry Knowles for guidance. His annual “Butt-Numb-a-Thon” festival turns her onto the joy of big screen gore. Guided by her lively adolescent imagination, she manages to complete her first screenplay for a zombie story called “Pathogen.” It involves standard B-movie ingredients: A deadly virus inhabiting the water supply, lumbering zombies and a whole lot of blood.
Like many filmmakers, Hagins is driven by a tendency to imitate her predecessors. The only thing separating her from, say, Quentin Tarantino appears to be production values and life experience. Without discrediting the value of those criteria, it’s interesting to explore how the seeds of creative motivation can sprout at any age, especially now that cheaper technologies have enabled the Emily Hagins of the world to find an outlet for imitating their heroes.
The documentary, directed by Justin Johnson, Aaron Marshall and Erik Mauck, follows Hagins from the early stages of pre-production to her triumphant premiere at Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse, two years after starting the project. While I’m not sure it earns the full ninety minute running time, the directors manage to craft an intermittently entertaining chronicle of Hagins’s attempts to navigate the usual filmmaking hurdles — in addition to a few unique ones. (It’s hard to imagine Francis Ford Coppola dealing with his whiny mother on the set.) When it comes time for the inevitable barrage of talking heads to analyze the ramifications of a young girl being able to make a low budget genre movie like anybody else out there, “Zombie Girl” hints at the future of DIY cinema. As a sociological survey of youth filmmaking, it barely scratches the surface of the tremendous productivity that has grown increasingly feasible in recent years — but it does offer a starting point.
“Zombie Girl” happens to be available on SnagFilms at a particularly good time for exploring this topic, as a divisive survey of DIY filmmaking and self-distribution recently cropped up in the New York Times, prompting conversations about the ease (or lack thereof) involved in connecting movies to their rightful audiences. The problem with grouping these attempts together as a slow-forming “movement” is that younger filmmakers are constantly experimenting with new strategies for telling stories and connecting with their fans. There aren’t a lot of precedents or business model, but the content creators are more active than ever. Though somewhat basic in its design, “Zombie Girl” enters this conversation by implying that a new generation unfamiliar with a world sans twenty-first century technology will gradually figure out how to properly use it. If Hagins still wants to make movies when she enters adulthood, she’ll have plenty of practice.
[Editor’s Note: “Zombie Girl: The Movie” is the fourth installment in a series of reviews spotlighting the SummerFest series on SnagFilms – which is the parent company of indieWIRE. Previous reviews include “Second Skin,” “45365” and “The Entrepreneur”.]