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The important thing to remember about Emily Hagins, the budding filmmaker at the center of the documentary ZOMBIE GIRL: THE MOVIE (which has been playing the fest circuit for the last year or so), is that she’s a 12-year-old. A real 12-year-old, not a miniature adult of the type we’ve been conditioned to expect from the cinema, and that no doubt would have taken center stage if this were a calculated reality-TV program.
In that type of show, ZOMBIE GIRL’s opening scene, in which Hagins appears confused by an interviewer’s query about how many shots she plans to do that day, might seem intended to mock her inexperience. But this much more empathetic portrait makes a different point: Emily is not so concerned with all the technical specifics that grown-up moviemakers busy themselves with; all she knows is that she wants to go out there and make her own zombie feature, like the one that made such a strong impression on her when she caught it at a screening at the Alamo Drafthouse in her native Austin, TX. (Get ready to feel old, folks: The flick that inspires her is not a George A. Romero or Sam Raimi classic, but the Spierig brothers’ UNDEAD.)
Which is not to say that Emily doesn’t devote her every effort and plenty of planning to putting her 90-page undead script PATHOGEN before her Handycam, with the (almost) tireless assistance of her mother/de facto producer Megan. As much as the specifics of PATHOGEN’s homegrown production, directors Justin Johnson, Aaron Marshall and Erik Mauck make this relationship the linchpin of ZOMBIE GIRL. A graphic designer and movie/TV devotee herself (to the point of having the STAR TREK theme on her cell phone), Megan encouraged her daughter’s cinemania from a young age, and goes above and beyond to support Emily’s vision, from assembling a microphone boom out of a paint roller to creating kitchen-table makeup FX. As the weekend-and-school-holiday shoot rolls on, the inevitable tensions crop up and Emily and Megan squabble like any parent and child (or director and producer), but the closeness and warmth between them always wins out.
Even as it celebrates family bonds and indie moviemaking perseverance, ZOMBIE GIRL also functions as a sort of coming-of-age story. Before Johnson, Marshall and Mauck’s cameras, we see Emily gain in confidence, not immune to disappointment and frustration but always soldiering on and learning as she goes. She may not have formal training, and admits to possessing “communication problems,” but she knows what she wants; there’s a great little moment where she answers a warning about having her preteen ghoul actors shamble down the middle of a road by stating, “Zombies don’t walk on the sidewalk.” It’s easy to see why she elicits the support of the adults around her, also including her dad Jerry, local film critic Christopher Cargill (pressed into service as an actor, he provides gentle advice about the lensing of his scene) and Austin cinema poobah Harry Knowles, who provides color commentary, some of it unnecessary. We also get to know Emily’s young cast, of whom the standout character is Tony Vespe, a shaggy-haired, bespectacled boy prone to comments such as, recalling his first meeting with his future director, “I thought she was, like, 13, but she’s, like, 12.”
Indeed she is, which makes this one of the only filmmaking documentaries in which hurdles to be overcome include “scheduling problems and homework.” But one of the endearing things about ZOMBIE GIRL is how many of Emily’s challenges echo those of much older directors on much bigger projects. If there’s one major complaint about the movie, it’s that we never get a sufficient look at the end result of all her efforts; we’re barely shown any of PATHOGEN itself (which you can find out more about at her website). Perhaps the documentarians’ point is that Emily’s true achievement was simply getting her feature finished, with the bonus of a sold-out premiere at the Drafthouse that provides ZOMBIE GIRL with a triumphant conclusion. The most meaningful moment in her evolution, however, arrives about an hour in when she tells the camera, “I want to be a director…” then stops and corrects herself: “I am a director, I’m doing this right now.”
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