"What could go so wrong with a girl and a zombie?"
In the two years since I first saw it, Z-O-M-B-I-E-S has become one of my favorite films to ponder and discuss. That’s not the same as it being my favorite movie – good God no – but I find this cultural artifact deeply fascinating, strange, and intriguing, rewarding numerous revisits despite its many flaws.
The musical, which debuted on the Disney Channel in 2018, follows the romance between a human cheerleader, Addison (Meg Donnelly), and a zombie football player, Zed (Milo Manheim). In this cartoonish universe, zombiism has been curbed with something called a Z-band, which functions like a nicotine patch, offering zombies a low-dose zap of hormones to suppress their brainlust and transform them into functional members of society. However, zombies still retain their pale skin, green hair, and poverty, making them easy to distinguish from ‘normal’ humans.
As a new school year begins, which is introduced by the excellent opener ‘Our Year’, we learn that, for the first time, zombie and human high schools are being integrated, much to the dismay of many prejudiced humans. However, Addison, who has a shock of unnaturally platinum blonde hair that her parents make her hide under a wig (a mystery not explained until the third film in the series), has a degree of sympathy for the marginalized zombies.
That’s right: Z-O-M-B-I-E-S is a story about racism and a white savior. You don’t need to dig too deep to realize how misguided and batshit this analogy is. The zombies are afflicted with an incurable ‘deformity’, their ‘condition’ threatening to turn them into flesh-eating ‘monsters’ if they don’t conform to the culture and lifestyle of the majority group. I’m not entirely sure that’s the message we want to convey about minorities to our children.
But it’s so much weirder than it sounds. The entire film is enveloped in a haze of quasi-irony. Much of the script is constructed around the language and mentality of progressive social justice, but it often reads like parody. If I’m being generous to both the filmmakers and the audience, one could interpret Z-O-M-B-I-E-S as a campy pastiche that both sincerely endorses the content of its message while mocking the self-seriousness of most racism-themed films. But that feels too sophisticated: Occam’s razor would suggest exuberantly catastrophic storytelling.
Decoding the film’s true intent is tough. For instance, Addison’s ballad “Stand” near the climax, where she overcomes her fear of being seen as ‘other’, is a typical cliché of your average ‘racism is bad’ drama, with a heavy dollop of white saviorism. All irony discarded.
So which is it? Goofy parody or sincere misfire? This ambiguity is part of what makes the film so enigmatic; it’s never quite clear how much the film is winking at us. It’s basically exactly what you’d cook up in a lab if you were a boomer trying to create a ‘woke’ Gen Z Disney Channel musical. Z-O-M-B-I-E-S simultaneously embraces and mocks this identity.
Were it only about its message, Z-O-M-B-I-E-S would be a mere curiosity. Thankfully, it offers much more to the deranged viewer. Directed by Paul Hoen, a Disney Channel original movie veteran who infuses his projects with a touch of the unhinged, the film has a truly unique — and, in my view, worthwhile — aesthetic.
When discussing the look of Z-O-M-B-I-E-S, one must begin with the colors. Frankly, I could dedicate this entire review to discussing its colors alone. This is the greenest and pinkest film you have ever seen. (Maybe not the greenest; maybe not the pinkest — especially once Barbie comes out later this summer — but definitely the greenest AND pinkest.) It’s garish and eye-popping, significantly escalating the heightened reality of Z-O-M-B-I-E-S and making its busted racism parable even more freakadelic. I can’t quite say film’s color palette is objectively good. In fact, I might go so far as to call it an aesthetic atrocity. But car crashes are fun to watch, and damn do I enjoy letting Z-O-M-B-I-E-S make my eyeballs bleed. It’s truly something else.
The human world is saturated with lime green and electric pink set against bright white, with hints of powder blue. In contrast, the zombies – who speak a language called ‘Zombie’ and live in a neighborhood called ‘Zombieland’ (too obvious?) – have a color scheme that more closely resembles Jack Nicholson’s Joker: dark green and rusty purple. Most of the zombies look like they’re cosplaying as Batman’s nemesis, complete with purple clothes, pale white skin, and green hair. (The makeup and hair dying is, alas, all over the place.)
The production design, overall, amplifies the film’s surrealism. The humans reside in a pristine, angular, inorganic suburban utopia, whereas the zombies are confined to a ghetto that resembles an overgrown city block. It’s fun, but I wish the production design had been even more audacious to match the full-tilt spectacle of the color design. A no-holds-barred Tim Burton-style expressionistic wonderland would’ve been a delight. Z-O-M-B-I-E-S occasionally reaches these heights, but not always.
Seabrook High School is a topsy-turvy setting that further intensifies the film’s insane tone. Here, cheerleading is the dominant sport, overshadowing football, which is a mere side attraction. The football coach (Jonathan Langdon) views the job as a nuisance, and the varsity team are outcasts, whereas the ‘king’ on campus is the captain of the cheerleading team, Addison’s cousin Bucky (Trevor Tordjman), who doubles as the villain of the story.
Despite the humans’ rampant anti-zombie bigotry, their student body is a diverse panacea. Students represent a spectrum of skin colors and body sizes. Some characters are gender-ambiguous in presentation, and while there are no explicitly queer characters in the first film, they are introduced in the later films, without any fuss. The only prejudice at Seabrook is against the undead. It’s galaxy brain bigotry.
Where was I? Oh, right, waiting a thousand words to get to the most objectively good part of the film: The production and choreography of its musical numbers. On top of everything else, Z-O-M-B-I-E-S is a delightful book musical. My favorites are the previously mentioned opener, the psychedilic “BAMM,” and especially “Someday,” the midtempo romance number. The latter features a cozy production with cool use of lights and props. I dare you to watch this and not be at least a little charmed:
Alas, even with the consistently compelling staging, the tunes themselves are inconsistent. Much of it is overproduced radio pop, even the good bits. And as someone who loves plenty of overproduced radio pop, nothing here is an excellent specimen.
The film’s cast is a mixed bag, but the major win is Manheim as Zed. The lanky zombie has good delivery and chemistry with everyone. His long, angular body is fun to watch in his choreography, and he brings a lot of spirit to the role. On the flip side, I’ve come lower and lower on Donnelly’s performance as Addison with each viewing — at her best, she’s simply mugging cutely; just as often, she’s not doing much of anything. (Watch the above linked clip of “Someday” and try compare exactly what Manheim and Donnelly are contributing to the scene to see the gap in micro.)
The supporting cast, meanwhile, keeps up well enough, though I’ve never been wild about Tordjman. On the one hand, he’s a physical specimen, performing cheerleading stunts without a double throughout the film, dancing and flipping around the screen with remarkable dexterity. But Bucky could really use more menace and haughtiness than Tordjman offers, and it diminishes the conflict.
Z-O-M-B-I-E-S is so unusual and perplexing in ways that I value that it’s tempting for me to overrate it. It is a deeply fascinating piece of made-for-TV cinema that simply drowns you in its quirky personality. It’s broken in numerous ways, but that’s not all that matters: Z-O-M-B-I-E-S makes for good and challenging art in the way it transforms boring cliches into whackadoodle weirdness. Its presentation is unique enough for Z-O-M-B-I-E-S to really register as something special. “Special” is not always synonym for “good,” of course, but here I think it applies.