The fact that Di Lalla’s film was honored with some prestigious awards at a film festival dedicated to Super 8mm productions (Best Feature Award and Audience Choice Prize, 2012 United States Super 8 Film Festival) demonstrates that small-gauge is alive and kicking. But ZoZo really hit the jackpot by securing DVD distribution via Image Entertainment (available everywhere November 19). Some viewers, weaned on the often bland technical perfection of high definition video, may claim ZoZo looks cheap. The truth is, while the imagery is grainy and the focus sometimes wavers, this is a visually interesting film from start to finish. The cinematography is raw and organic, never lacking in character. After several years of digital video as the new standard at seemingly all levels of film production, a movie like I Am ZoZo serves as an exciting reminder of the beauty inherent in old-fashioned film grain.
As for the content of the film itself, ZoZo is more of a subtly atmospheric tease than anything likely to scare you out of your wits. A group of young adult friends convene at a vacation property located on Washington State’s San Juan Islands. They hang out, go fishing, and play with the Ouija board. It’s the latter that propels the film, with many of the other activities feeling like filler. They’re contacted repeatedly by a spirit who identifies itself as “ZoZo.” The goth girl of the group, Mel (Courtney Foxworthy), recently lost a cousin with whom she was close. She’s convinced they’re communicating with his spirit, hence the continued desire to keep using the board even though ZoZo has made it clear that their fate will be unpleasant.
The frustrating aspect of I Am Zozo is that it’s terminally stuck in neutral. The cast of unknowns acquits itself relatively well. Kelly McLaren in particular is quite credible as Tess, the increasingly unstable damsel in distress at the center of the group’s séance misadventures. The lo-fi look lends a sense of timelessness; this story could be taking place 30 or 40 years ago. The score (by BC Smith) and some well-chosen soundtrack tunes help maintain the chilly, spooky tone. I only wish Di Lalla had given his characters something a little more interesting to talk about in between the Ouija board scenes. And be forewarned, anyone expecting a conventional ending is likely to be confounded.
That said, this is a valiant indie effort that manages to maintain interest even considering its limited “scares.” I was reminded of another recent occult-based, psychological thriller that managed to ruffle feathers due to its lack of conventional “jump” moments or a neatly resolved plot, Sebastián Silva’s Magic Magic. That film, however, honed its characters much more sharply, digging deeper into their psyches in order to create a better realized depiction of paranoia and unease. Even with a marketing campaign that takes a page out of the ‘this all happened,’ Blair Witch Project playbook (though ZoZo, it should be noted, is not a found-footage movie), the screenplay needed to more fully define its characters.
Image’s DVD offers a behind-the-scenes featurette and an interview with cast member Darren Wayne Evans, who tries to further the whole “reality” angle by discussing the so-called “ZoZo phenomenon” and how this evil spirit has supposedly contacted many people via Ouija boards. But the believable performances and boldly retro Super 8 cinematography are the main reasons to give I Am ZoZo a whirl.