Zombies are so hot right now. 2002 saw the release of the first Resident Evil movie and the genre-redefining 28 Days Later, and since then over 150 zombie movies have been released. That’s more than the entire sum total of zombie movies released BEFORE 2002. Numbers don’t lie, people.
Perhaps the most interesting development of the Turn of the Century Zombie Renaissance is the popularization of Zombie Comedies, or ZombComs. The success of Shaun of the Dead has spawned movies like Fido, Otto: Up With Dead People, and Rising Up: The Zombie Rights Movement. These films abandon almost all horror conventions, and don’t take the threat of flesh eating invaders quite so seriously.
American Heart is an impressively cinematic web series produced by Woo and Baker Productions and directed by two North Carolina School of the Arts film students by that fits comfortably into the ZombCom camp. Not many scares, but lots of severed limbs, non-threatening zombies, and stupid human tricks.
The series follows a group of survivors who lock themselves inside a hospital (called American Heart) to escape the zombie outbreak. Instead of starting at the beginning of the outbreak, in the first episode we jump to day 34 of the survivor’s ordeal.
This is a neat storytelling device that allows us to meet the characters after the initial shock and terror of their situation has worn off, and they’re left lazying around the hospital, occupying their time by playing games with hospital equipment, teasing zombies, and having sex with each other.
The “high concept” of the series is that all of the show’s footage is shot by a reality TV crew who were caught up in the outbreak while on location with their star, the vapid Lucy Simms. That’s why all the characters are aware of the cameras, and frequently do short interviews about the day’s events. This is one of the best and most subtle jokes of the series. In this day and age, everyone is aware of how reality shows are supposed to go, and even in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, people are still itching for a chance to be on camera.
The dramatic tension of the series comes from the possibility of a rescue from the National Guard, and as the show progresses, it seems that the only way to get the attention necessary for a rescue is to…release a series of YouTube videos? How deliciously meta! Four episodes have been released and with only one more to go, the resolution should be revealed shortly.
The mockumentary tone of American Heart is certainly evocative of The Office (or, if you like, 10 Items or Less ), right down to the incompetent authority figure, here represented by Sheriff Joe (Jim Babel, in the series best performance). He’s a classic country bumpkin struggling to keep a lid on a crisis.
Other survivors include a washed up sci-fi actor named Neil and the aforementioned Lucy Simms, who has an excellent moment early in the series as she hosts her reality dating show and fails to realize a contestant is slowly turning into a zombie. Until he rips a potential suitor’s throat out. “That’s so not hot!”
The cute, young character contingent is filled by Rachel, Sheriff Joe’s younger sister, and Eric, Rachel’s no-good boyfriend. Rachel is very much the Pam in the The Office analogue, a cute and inoffensive bystander who watches events unfold in a somewhat bemused fashion. Unfortunately, she lacks the personality to be an engaging avatar for the audience, and Eric is too much of a jackass to be likable himself or create any romantic tension. The result is the more loserly characters, Lucy and Joe, become the most endearing thing about the series.
The writing is frequently very good, especially in the first episode, though later there are a few cringe-worthy cliches (“Just when I thought things couldn’t get any stranger…”). A number of excellent visual gags pepper the series, generally showing how comfortable the characters have become with the undead (like a makeshift bowling alley involving severed heads).
There are also some bizarre instances of self-indulgence that one only finds in a truly independent production, such as random boob-shots and a long sequence in episode two in which a character fishes through a “stool sample” in a toilet. Even Charlie Kaufman couldn’t pull that sort of thing off – it doesn’t work any better for American Heart.
People responding to a horror-movie scenario with boredom is a great comment on desensitization, and the reality-style cinematography is spot-on and ready for broadcast. With the yet to be released series finale, American Heart will form an 85 minute series, and provided they finish strong, it’s a worthy entry to the ZombCom (or is it Zomedy?) genre.
Check it out at AmericanHeartShow.com.