Emily Hagins has adored movies for her entire life. Cinema has filled her soul, helped to form an unbreakable bond with her mother Meghan, and catapulted her artistic aspirations beyond mere passive observation. Emily Hagins is ready to make her first movie: a blood-n-guts zombie epic entitled “Pathogen.” It’ll take a cast of hundreds, citywide locations, endless hours of shooting, and a DeMille-like concentration to the finer points of storytelling. Emily Hagins is ready to achieve her lifelong dream. Emily Hagins is 12 years old.
“Zombie Girl: The Movie” would make an excellent double feature with Chris Smith’s “American Movie.” Both documentaries detail cinematic endeavors from artists unprepared for the challenge, battling incredible odds armed only with their excitement, genre fandom, and a few supportive types in the background. “Zombie Girl” has the gimmick of Emily, a gawky pre-teen breastfed on Austin, Texas film culture with the help of her mother. Enraptured with “Lord of the Rings” and Peter Jackson, and inspired by the 2003 Australian zombie film “Undead” (one of the worst pictures of that year, but I’m not a 12-year-old girl), Emily concocted a plan to compose her own splatter feature, using a camcorder, a boom microphone taped to a paint roller, and undying support from Meghan, thrilled that her child was reaching for the stars.
Directors Justin Johnson, Erick Mauck, and Aaron Marshall were there to cover much of the “Pathogen” shoot, following Emily and her crew (OK, her mom and dad) around suburban Texas as the pre-pubescent gorehound constructed her ode to horror’s finest adversary. A tale cleanly conveyed by the filmmakers, “Zombie Girl” is an ode to childlike spirit and adult reality, capturing Emily and Meghan and they bicker and bond over months of filming. “Zombie Girl” is at its best fixed on their interaction: Emily of stuttery ambition and independence (she’s a bit of a control freak), and Meghan aware of limitations and parental duty. Over the course of this film, their relationship remains loving, but it fascinatingly dissolves from parent and child to producer and director, with Meghan’s creative suggestions acting as razor blades raked across Emily as she fights to preserve her own vision for “Pathogen.” Johnson, Mauck, and Marshall are incredibly fair to both parties, focusing more on the strain of film production and how it effects even the smallest of shoots. I’m sure even Spielberg had to deal with second-guessing parents at one point in his early years.
“Zombie Girl: The Movie” (which also contains brilliant title design work from Deborah Allison) does hunt for significance in Emily’s educational experience, exploring the rise of young filmmakers blazing their own trail with point-and-click filmmaking tools. There’s also, for better or worse, plenty of Austin personalities who articulate Emily’s determination with a touch too much camera-aware enthusiasm. The peanut gallery comments are valuable, but secondary to the “Pathogen” shoot and the joy of the documentary. Watching Emily perfect shots, arrange her schoolmate extras (often dripping with fake blood), and emotionally react to the roller coaster ride of filmmaking is where the true heart of this engaging documentary lies.