The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, March 13, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW - Diary of the Dead

Full review behind the jump

Diary of the Dead

: George A. Romero
: George A. Romero
: Art Spigel, Ara Katz, Sam Englebardt, Peter Grunwald
: Michelle Morgan, Joshua Close, Shawn Roberts, Amy Ciupak Lalonde, Joe Dinicol, Scott Wentworth, Philip Riccio, Chris Violette, Tatiana Maslany

I never thought I would see George A. Romero truly misfire on a zombie movie. Not only is he the Godfather of splatter and one of the pioneers of modern independent film, he wrote the Bible on what is the dominant supernatural creature in American pop culture today. There were zombie movies before Romero, even quite excellent ones like the 1943 Val Lewton-produced haunted romance
I Walked With a Zombie, and the first known zombie feature, 1932’s Bela Lugosi vehicle White Zombie. But they were wed to the West Indies mythology of the sleep-walking slave hypnotized by spells and potions. It was Romero, with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, who re-cast them as a relentless virus of consumption, lurching and clawing and eating away at humanity, foot soldiers of an Apocalypse made by our own flaws, wearing our faces.

Even at his previous low point, in the hysterics of 1985’s
Day of the Dead, you still had his imagination for blood-and-guts, his knack for oddball characters, and the provocative implications of the “trained” zombie Bub. In movie after movie he consistently demonstrated a voice for contemporary satire, using the threat of flesh-eating ghouls to create not just action and disgust, but scenarios where humanity’s pettiness and willful denial of reality were frequently more destructive than the ghouls themselves. His settings were perfectly-conceived microcosms – the besieged farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, the derelict shopping mall, the government-subsidized cavern base, the feudalized city-fortress of haves and have-nots.

But with
Diary of the Dead, rather than carry on the loose chronology of his four prior zombie pictures, he has attempted to re-launch the plague, and re-invent himself in the process. He has embraced digital filmmaking and the trendiness of viral video. And he has a very good idea, attempting a mixed media pastiche, involving the filmmaking process itself in the action in the way that the cameramen of The Blair Witch Project and the recent Cloverfield found themselves recording their own violent misfortune. But he does not have nearly enough resources, nor, I think, the flexibility as a filmmaker, to survive the trip into this new aesthetic with his bite intact.

Our leads are a group of student filmmakers in the woods, trying to shoot a clichéd mummy movie. The director, Jason Creed (Joshua Close) clearly has higher ambitions, even as he’s impatiently explaining to his mummy Ridley (Phillip Riccio) that he can’t run, and suffering the protests of his leading lady Tracy (Amy Lalonde) about unnecessary topless shots.

Sensational reports trickle in on the radio about the dead rising and attacking the living, and although they don’t know if they believe it’s true, the students and their hard-drinking, pretentious speech-making professor (Scott Wentworth) begin to document their trip back to civilization to find their loved ones. Along the way, they mix in news footage they’ve pulled from the web, of cops shooting attackers that won’t fall down – footage which they later see scrubbed and sanitized for broadcast. The movie is presented to us as the final edited assembly of Jason’s vision – the story of what happened when the dead walked, interspersed with their own struggles to survive long enough to finish it so the world remembers “what really happened”.

This opens up two dangerous traps, and Romero, his customary gruesome playfulness aside, falls into both. Firstly it works against his habits – Romero’s filmmaking background is in editing, and when you are accustomed to finding the emotion of a picture in the editing room, shooting long, single takes like this without close-ups to track the characters’ emotions is bound to leave you at sea. The moods of this picture don’t feel grim or desperate, they feel shallow and insincere.

Late in the picture, when they arrive at Ridley’s parents’ mansion, the picture drastically improves, as Romero has security cameras to cut between and create a rhythm of dread. He also has the benefits of a panic room, a character deep in the creepy throes of the denial crazies, and a superb use for a swimming pool.

Until then the actors just move from location to location, emotions fraying while their numbers are methodically reduced by the ubiquitous undead. They spend time in a hospital, at a compound where a self-made militia is organizing and stockpiling, at a farmhouse where the occupant has both a unique communication method and unusual zombie-fighting techniques, and is the most entertaining character to be found. Between his presence, the climax, and a few inspired zombie kills, hardcore fans will probably piece together enough to not feel too let down.

But he stands out with even more humor, I think, because he’s such a startling contrast to the annoyingly bland central characters. It could be a lack of charisma among the actors, it could be how difficult it is for their personalities to reach the camera lens when their circumstances give us nothing more to do than wait for zombies to pop in, but I think it’s largely half-baked writing. Jason and his partner Debra (Michelle Morgan) have this perpetual argument about what they are doing, about the desensitization that happens when you pick up a camera. It never comes to any conclusion, and it’s certainly a smaller, pettier theme than any Romero’s ghouls have shambled through before.

I mentioned that there are two traps. The second, an unfortunate one, is that with his skimpy budget, he simply does not have the means to fake enough raw material to make the conceit convincing. His patchy little blurps of external media pale in comparison to the grimly witty opening credit montage from the re-make of Dawn of the Dead, which melded staged press conferences and news broadcasts into stock footage of riots and mayhem. Compared to that little masterpiece of montage, in Diary of the Dead you end up asking why, if these filmmakers have access to the collected footage of amateur journalists of the undead from all over the world, does so much of their master project consist of their bickering selves in a Winnebago?

George Romero never intended to spend his life making horror movies, he was simply a smart, technically-resourceful commercial producer who concocted a feature story that he figured could be shot within his means and would probably make his investors their money back. Now his ambitions of format have far outstripped both his resources and the sum substance of his content.

Perhaps it’s finally that he did the job too well over the last two generations. Legions of creative minds have grown up inspired by Night and its sequels – some big names among them have voice cameos as newscasters here, like Wes Craven, Stephen King, Guillermo Del Toro, Simon Pegg, Quentin Tarantino. And his ghouls have busted out of the medium of film and invaded others, producing brilliant works like Robert Kirkman’s graphic novel series The Walking Dead; and World War Z, Max Brooks’s epic “oral history” of a fictional worldwide zombie outbreak. The scope and detail of projects like this, having thoroughly imagined the effect of the undead from social, political, ethical, and every other angle, leave this picture looking flimsy and undernourished. The thematic body of zombie work has grown exponentially, while the original author, sadly, has tried to return to the drawing board, but with nothing to say worth saying.


  • Romero facing thematic obsolescence? Say it ain't so. I must admit "Day of the Dead" is my personal favorite. I do believe it to be Tom Savini's finest hour. I love the hopelessness, as science and militarism become utterly useless and things degenerate into a bunker version of "Lord of the Flies". And who doesn't love Bub?

    By Anonymous Mike De Luca, at 7:50 AM  

  • I know a lot of people peg Day as their favorite, including Romero himself. It does indeed contain some of the best nightmares of dismemberment Savini ever cooked up, and the nihilism does mesmerize. But in terms of over-emoting actors and over-long screaming dialogue arguments, I tend to see it as a bridge too far, and I always will wonder what it could have been if he'd actually been given the money to shoot his original script, rather than have to cook up that new story on three weeks' notice.

    By Blogger Nick, at 9:30 AM  

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