I’d venture to say that there are two highly anticipated films coming out this coming weekend. The first, of course, is Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life,” newly anointed by Robert De Niro and the Cannes Festival Jury with a Palme d’Or. Then there’s “The Hangover Part II,” the excitement for which is a bit different. I’ll be honest: initially I was hoping to write about Malick’s early short film, 1969’s “Lanton Mills.” Unfortunately, not only is it not available anywhere on the web, but to see it at all you have to go to the American Film Institute library. Those of us who don’t live in LA have no such luck.
Thankfully, Ed Helms delivers. This star of “The Hangover” wrote and appeared in a three-part series of shorts entitled “Zombie-American,” back in 2005. And because he’s awesome, Helms has uploaded them to the web at Funny or Die. He plays Glen, a zombie that just wants to fit in, despite his decaying flesh. Yet it’s rough being undead, and everything from dating to walking seems to become an unfortunate exercise in discrimination. Co-written and directed by Helms’ “The Daily Show” colleague Nick Poppy, the short has played with others made by writers on the show in a collection called “NewsFakers/Filmmakers.” “Zombie-American” is creative and just plain funny, putting a new spin on a classic monster and giving him some much-needed humanity.
In a way, Helms and Poppy have taken the same approach to the cinematic undead as Spencer Susser and David Michôd in their recent Short Starts-featured film “I Love Sarah Jane.” Both aren’t so much zombie movies as they are movies with zombies, though “Zombie-American” is a comedy rather than a coming-of-age drama. The figure is extremely familiar and almost ubiquitous these days, to the point that most of us see a zombie and immediately call up the tropes of brain eating, zoned-out mobs on the move, and apocalyptic contagion. By taking such a commonly understood character and putting him into the unorthodox scenarios of dating or basketball, Poppy and Helms start off with practically built-in entertainment value.
The real creativity here, however, is the placing of a zombie into another identifiable genre. “Zombie-American” is essentially a sitcom/mockumentary in the spirit of “The Office” (which Helms would join a year later). We’re cued by cuts between interview clips and footage of our undead friend fixing himself at the mirror or waiting for a date, drawn into not just a whimsical spin on the walking corpse but a direct hybrid of zombie and single-camera comedy. It also helps the focus on a number of smaller and subtler jokes, which this style of filmmaking really accentuates. As Glen sits waxing poetic in front of the mirror about his condition, he’ll end up getting distracted and start sticking a cotton swab through his face. The deadpan tone really captures Helms’ understated humor. Here are all three chapters: