Monday, March 31, 2008
George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead (2008)
In a world where soulless horror of the Hostel variety is king, fans of the old school of the genre should rejoice at the release of Diary of the Dead, George A. Romero’s latest look into the end of days. A return to the director’s low-budget roots and a radical stylistic experiment-- the film purports to be “found footage” culled from security cameras, the internet, and the recordings of a group of film students-- Diary of the Dead is the fifth and most audacious look into Romero’s zombie universe.
Like his other films, Diary of the Dead follows a small group of characters fighting to survive hordes of flesh-eating zombies amidst societal demise, and as a purely filmic experience it’s a near-masterpiece. The low-fi approach adds a kinetic, free-form tension that was lacking in the last two films, and the gore is as sickeningly creative as ever. Where the film lags is when it tries to serve up a side order of cultural critique along with the dismemberments. Unlike the subtle but admittedly amorphous satire that has filled Romero’s previous efforts (the critique of consumer culture in Dawn of the Dead being the most popular, with the undead returning to a shopping mall purely by instinct), his attempt to criticize the information age in Diary is disappointingly maladroit, and while the ideas that he plays with are interesting and worth considering, the way that they relate to the story and its director’s overarching point is ultimately a bit muddled.
The film begins in the woods on the set of film student Jason Creed’s senior project, an amateurish-looking mummy movie. When news of the dead coming back to life begins to fill the airwaves, Creed and his friends, along with their urbane but perpetually drunk professor, abandon the film project and take off on the road in a Winnebago to try to reunite with their parents. Armed with a digital camera, Creed resolves to film the calamity happening around them for posterity. This idea annoys the others, particularly his strong-willed ex-girlfriend, Debra, but it quickly escalates to a full-fledged quest for truth when Creed realizes that the reality of the situation is not being adequately represented by the media.
Unlike the previous living dead films, which have all been confined to specific locations (a country house, a shopping mall, an underground bunker, a skyscraper), Diary of the Dead is very much a road movie. While the group travels across Pennsylvania, the film becomes a sort of twisted travelogue as they encounter zombie cops, a deaf amish zombie-killer, and a thieving troop of National Guardsmen. In what amounts to the film’s most memorable dramatic sequence, the students are rescued and taken to a well-stocked safe house guarded by a ragtag group of African-American survivalists. Locked behind steel doors and monitored by security cameras, these survivors have managed to rise above the hysteria and panic and band together, amassing a stockpile of gas, weapons, and food. “For the first time in our lives,we got the power,” the leader tells Debra, “because everybody else left.”
Scenes like this one, along with the sequence where National Guardsmen rob the students of all the supplies that the group of blacks gives them, hint at the kind of subtle social commentary that fans have come to expect from Romero. But the film, through Debra’s deadpan narration, becomes overly didactic when it begins to skewer the media and the so-called “YouTube Generation.” Romero’s script--which is otherwise extraordinarily well done-- is often heavy-handed in its critiques, and it’s sometimes contradictory as well. One minute he seems to be hinting that while the mainstream media attempts to spread fear, young students like Jason Creed and the world of podcasters and bloggers are the true purveyors of reality, and the next he has Debra comment through her narration that in a world bogged down with information “the truth becomes even harder to find.” Romero shows us a wealth of newsreel footage, myspace pages and cellphone camera videos, and he’s obviously trying to say something with it, but as the film stands it comes dangerously close to typifying the very information-saturation it's trying to critique.
This complaint aside, Romero does pull off a rather stunning technical feat with Diary of the Dead, and one shouldn’t allow a few thematic shortcomings to overshadow the film's substantial visual accomplishments. In weaving together all these different kinds of found-footage, from Creed’s shots to security camera footage and faux-YouTube clips, Romero manages to give the zombie menace an immediacy that was lacking in the older films without sacrificing any of the soul that made them so watchable. It often worries me in today’s world of internet video and cell phone cameras that handheld, low resolution, shoddily framed film has somehow become so synonymous with reality that directors use it as a crutch (“Look! He’s shooting documentary style!), but Romero manages to pull off this conceit with exceptional elegance. Diary of the Dead is destined to be compared to The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, but Romero’s approach differs greatly from those headache-inducing efforts. His shots are crisp and nicely framed, and because he saves the shaky-camera for moments when it’s really necessary, it manages to be quite effective.
When all is said and done, Diary of the Dead is nothing if not a welcome addition to Romero’s pantheon of zombie films. His social commentary has become a bit overbearing with old age, but at least he’s still trying to deliver something to his audience beyond the usual blood and gore (of which he is still an undisputed master-- a final scene showing rednecks using zombies for target practice is among the most disturbing things he’s filmed). I’ve never been one for sequels, but the way that Romero has breathed new life into a genre that has been suffocated by imitators is astonishing, and I can only wonder if he’ll find the need (if not the money) to add to his epic series, which I consider to be among the best of the horror genre.
(P.S., I realize that I’ve made no mention of the quality of the acting in this film. Suffice to say, it’s pretty bad, but never in such a way that it took me out of the story. If there are unwritten rules in the movies, one of them is that horror films are generally exempt from needing good acting. If the atmosphere is constructed well enough, it’ll fill in the gaps. I’ll respectfully place Diary of the Dead in this category.)