Sunday, June 08, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead (2007)

Allow me to preface this review of Diary of the Dead with a note about my enduring fondness and critical admiration for George A. Romero, his impressive career, and his remarkable films. What else can be said or written of Romero's tour-de-force, Night of the Living Dead (1968), which hasn't already been said or written? In broad strokes, it forcefully re-arranged the face of modern horror cinema, and the impact of this landmark film resonates to this day.

On his other good days as a filmmaker, Romero has brilliantly de-mythologized and de-romanticized vampire lore (Martin [1976]), depicted with harrowing intensity the breakdown of society and the family unit piece-by-piece (The Crazies [1973]), and commented trenchantly on American "mall" or consumer culture (Dawn of the Dead [1979]).

Even on Romero's bad days, viewers are still left with films of significant interest: a Creepshow (1982) here, a Day of the Dead (1985) there; a Monkey Shines (1988) now or a Land of the Dead (2005) again. I would watch any of those films in a heart beat. Personally, I appreciate Romero's enduring social conscience; his flair with editing (honed in an early career shooting commercials), and his willingness to face human ugliness with blunt, violent ferocity.

Which brings us, alas, to George A. Romero's 2007 film, Diary of the Dead, a low-budget horror film which concerns a group of student filmmakers from the University of Pittsburgh who are crafting their own horror movie. But then something unbelievable and frightening happens on location. In the midst of shooting, a real zombie apocalypse breaks out, fracturing society and sending America (and the world) into a tail-spin of destruction, chaos and anarchy.

The director of the student horror film, Jason Creed (Joshua Close) realizes he has been handed a golden opportunity and vows not to fuck it up, so he begins documenting everything with his Panasonic digital video camera. When Jason uploads some of his footage later (called "The Death of Death"), he is excited that it has received 72,000 hits in just eight minutes. Creed's gotten his big break; and more to the point, he feels he is actually helping people...sharing accurate information about the apocalypse when the corporate mainstream media is just selling re-packaged spin and lies from the government. With his film professor, lead actress, make-up man, girlfriend Debra (Michelle Morgan) and a few others in tow, Jason boards an RV, heads for Scranton, and sees for himself (and for the camera) how Pennsylvania has changed since the dead have risen from the grave.

As you might suppose, the meme here is Night of the Living Dead re-cast for the YouTube generation. Diary of the Dead is thus a post-everything, apocalypse-mentality movie. Post 9/11, post-Katrina, post-Inconvenient Truth, post-Anthrax-attack, and on and on. Literally all of these "disasters" (or disasters in wait) are referenced in voice over narration during the film's first five minutes. And honestly, that's part of the film's overarching problem. The best Romero films are inevitably those which feature social sub-text and require some level of interpretation on the part of the viewer (think Dawn of the Dead or Jack's Wife).

Alarmingly, Romero forgets everything he's ever learned about nuance and subtlety and is here intent on spoon-feeding his messages to the audience. I suspect this is a sign of the times given even the modest popularity of Ron Moore's Galactica re-imagination, which suffers from the same dramatic flaw, but I hate to see a talent like Romero succumb (or is it pander?) Diary of the Dead - like the re-imagined Battlestar - tends towards the obvious and the pretentious when what we as audiences hunger for is something symbolic and authentically deep; something that requires we put ourselves into the world the narrative forges and think creatively, artistically.

Part of the problem in Diary of Dead is the long, monotonous, pretentious voice-over from Debra, which explains, ad nauseaum the theme and crux of the movie. That preachy theme is merely: "they are us" (meaning we are the zombies and the zombies are we...). Now, if you're like me, "they are us" proved a meaningful, useful and original turn of phrase the first time Romero uttered it (perhaps in an interview), probably a dozen years ago or more. But familiarity breeds contempt, and now this idea is so threadbare and hackneyed that it simply cannot carry the weight of a feature-length film; no matter in what manner it is re-parsed. ("Are we worth saving?" is another way of suggesting the same thing, I submit.) The voice over narration is so preachy, and delivered with such self-righteous solemnity that all the fun, momentum and energy bleeds out of Diary of the Dead. Horror films have to be "scary" first and then "about something" (often metaphorical...) second. This movie tends to skip the first level and thrust headlong into the hectoring social commentary.

Also - and I hate to beat a dead horse here - honesty compels me to note that Romero's other big theme is wantonly cribbed from The Blair Witch Project (1999). In particular, Romero focuses in Diary on the ways that seeing images (or life, as it were...) on film, TV or the Internet "numbs" the audience to real human suffering. It is a plot-point -- rather unbelievably -- from the moment the action starts that Jason Creed simply won't put down his camera; regardless of what occurs around him. His friends might get attacked, zombies may lunge at him, but he's going to keep filming EVERYTHING because as long as he has the "filter" of the camera between him and unpleasant reality he is okay; watching instead of living; passively documenting instead of actively participating. This was the ultimate point of The Blair Witch Project, in which the director there - Heather - held on to "filming" tooth-and-nail to retain her sanity; to deny the truth that she and her friends had become lost and hunted.

The only significant difference is that The Blair Witch Project got that message across brilliantly in one short scene. One of her crew picked up Heather's camera and turned it on her; made her feel what it was like to be the object of the "documentary" and noted that the eye of the camera "wasn't quite" reality. Simple. Elegant. Short. Diary of the Dead labors to make this point again and again, in voice-over, in action, in melodrama until we feel like we've been hammered with it. I'm old enough to remember when Romero was the trail-blazer, not the imitator, so I find this appropriation of theme disappointing on a massive scale (and not to mention depressing).

The tired repetition of "they are us" and The Blair Witch Project's subtext are not the only familiar notes Romero strikes here. There's a scene wherein zombies surround a farmhouse and barn (like in Night), a scene wherein racial inequities are addressed in a new "class" society (like in Land), a criticism of the military mentality involving a vignette with the National Guard (as in Day), and so forth. There's a scene with families keeping zombies locked up in an apartment (Dawn redux), a scene with a mother and child zombies on the attack (Night redux), and on and on it goes. So it's not just "they are us" that Romero is regurgitating in his latest film, but all his greatest zombie hits.

Now this is not to say that Romero has lost his touch completely: the director still stages some beautiful and eerie shots. I enjoyed the moment with the zombie goldfish wandering around the bottom of a swimming pool (an oddly disturbing yet simple visual). I also admired the Gothic composition of one particular long shot set in an autumnal glade, with an actress in a diaphanous white gown pointing a pistol at her soon-to-be a zombie boyfriend.

But for every moment that worked, there was another that didn't; that felt like Romero was striving for meaning and "importance" when he should have just concentrated on telling us a good, involving horror story (and letting the audience fill in the gaps).

Let me set up a sequence that explains, in a nutshell, why Diary of the Dead doesn't work; why Romero doesn't see the forest for the trees. The film opens with Jason shooting a horror movie and his friend, Ridley, is playing a shambling mummy in the production. We see a chase being filmed in the woods, as the girl in the gown is chased by the mummy. As director, Jason complains that mummies don't move fast, and that Ridley should shamble more slowly after the damsel in distress. The damsel - meanwhile - is upset that she is required to fall, lose her shoes, and show her cleavage all while screaming and being chased. It's sort of a self-reflexive moment, one that comments on horror movie conventions (as if this were Wes Craven's Scream [1996]), not to mention the recent trend of "fast zombies" in the cinema.

But then, at the climax of the film, Romero isn't content to leave it at that. No, that moment has to carry some additional meaning, and so the director pushes, he shoehorns. Ridley (the Mummy boy...) becomes a zombie (still wearing his mummy costume), and chases the same actress (in the same gown...) through the woods. She loses a shoe and the zombie rips off her blouse, revealing her cleavage. Get it?


It's supposed to be ironic and funny that life has imitated art, but the scene has not arisen naturally from the material. Instead, Romero has gone like a guided missile for the second level of "meaning" without establishing the "reality" of the first level. Let me explain: Ridley -- the character dressed as a Mummy -- left the horror movie film location two full days before becoming a zombie himself. We even see him on a web-cam one day after the shoot (safe in his McMansion panic room with Francine). In this footage he is partying and imploring the others to come hang out with him. When his friends arrive, it is the day after that footage. (So, to re-cap: he was dressed as Mummy for the horror movie shoot October 24th; hanging out October 25th, and killed and turned into a zombie on October 26th). Since he was at his house on the 25th and 26th...why didn't he ever change his clothes? He was at his home with his girlfriend Francine for OVER 24 hours...and he never took off those uncomfortable bandages? He never took off his costume?

The answer behind the incongruity: If Ridley had acted in a believable manner and changed his costume (as any of us surely would have...), Romero couldn't have staged his "meaningful" life imitates art climax. But the problem is that he is so busy reaching -- grasping, actually -- for larger meaning, that he forgets to sell the reality of it; the truth of it. Doesn't sound like Romero, does it? Fact is, this plot strand gains Romero nothing anyway, in part because every scene re-states his theme over and over, ad infinitum: "camera distancing;" "they are us."

Rinse and repeat.

I should also add that Romero cheats his p.o.v. subjective camera shtick from time to time (unlike either Cloverfield [2008] or Blair Witch Project). I know that the film in Diary of the Dead we are watching is Debra's "final cut" of Jason's movie, so I don't object to the various angles and such (there are two cameras for a while). But why does the final cut feature those glitches that go to spells of blue? That suggests raw footage, not an edit. Why also, in a scene with Ridley in the mansion (when there is only one camera) does Romero catch both Debra asking a question and Ridley answering that very question on screen without even a swivel from person to person? (In other words, there is no time lapse between the question and the answer; which means the single camera is facing two directions simultaneously - an impossibility). I would like to add that I don't think any of this is nitpicking: if you're going to pick a conceit like subjective camera, you are honor-bound to use it honestly and consistently. Romero gets about a B- on that front.

Similarly, the last scene of the film depicts two rednecks killing zombies in the woods. Who's got the camera? Who is filming this event? Are we to believe that two rednecks intent on shooting zombies in the head are ALSO DV camera literate? That they are also literate in uploading their footage to the Internet? (Jeez, it takes hours to upload to stuff to Veoh, for instance.) Again...it just feels off, like so much of the film. The reality of the scenario has been overlooked so the film can be "about something important."

This coda, with rednecks wantonly shooting zombies to the tones of Debra's solemn voice over narration ("are we worth saving?), makes the point about Diary of the Dead's problems quite well, actually. Just think, we've seen rednecks guzzling beer and shooting zombies before (in Dawn of the Dead in '79), and Romero was able to make his point ("they are us") just by observing the ritual; just by pointing the camera and letting it tell the story. But here, he repeats the same images (not so well shot, one might add) and yet feels the need to explain and interpret their meaning for us. Romero's earlier instinct was the right one. Show us what's important, and let us judge why they are important. Don't spoon feed us.

In much the same way that Blade Runner (1982) benefited from a director's cut that omitted all voice-over narration, I humbly suggest that Diary of the Dead should be thoughtfully re-tooled. All of Debra's voice over narration should be cut from the film, and I suspect the result would play more like a typical (and outstanding) Romero film; more like the rest of the Living Dead series. We'd still have all the ubiquitous cameras; we'd still have all the downloads and text messages; but we wouldn't be shot in the head with all the damn sermonizing. Instead, a cut of the film sans voice over narration would create some breathing room; allow us to think about what we are seeing and experiencing for ourselves.

In the Living Dead movie pantheon, Diary of the Dead is likely the worst entry (my previous candidate was 85's Day of the Dead). Another reason for the general low quality of this film is that the characters are pretty two-dimensional. And since they all must emote naturally while a camera happens to be rolling doesn't do the dramatis personae any favors either. For instance, it's laughable how the English professor keeps swigging bourbon on cue; just for the camera -- so the audience gets the idea he's a drunk. It plays like a cliche. Never mind that the character is given to wild, eloquent, poetic rambles about old men fearing "mirrors" and "mornings." Who the hell talks like this? And more to the point - who the hell talks like this, unrehearsed, on camera?

A last note, if you'll indulge me. I discovered the cinema of George A. Romero when I was a relatively young man. I must have been twelve or thirteen the first time I saw Dawn of the Dead and Night of the Living Dead. Those films fueled my subconscious and ignited my love of the horror genre. Why? Perhaps because there were so many things and ideas bubbling beneath the surface. Ideas about race, sex, society, the military, and morality. But it was all unstated, or at the least, understated, and in that gap my developing mind found the room to ponder these things; to decide for myself how I felt about that. Diary of the Dead is so pedantic, so preachy and so awfully trite that I fear the thirteen year-olds of 2008 would look at Romero and his work and just say "that old guy is talking down to us." Or "Let's watch that remake of The Hitcher instead." (Argh!)

That's what the film feels like to me, like Romero is talking down to all of us. Which sucks royally, and absolutely pains me to write. Because few directors understand the power of the genre as well as Romero. Few directors deserve the benefit of the doubt more than Romero. And few directors deserve more success today than Romero does.

But this professor needs a new lecture. "They are us" does not cut it anymore. Let the dead rest in peace.

5 comments:

  1. I will def. be seeing this soon, whatever the flaws (hey, it can't be as bad as the DAY OF THE DEAD remake, right)?!

    I have read wildly different things about this film. Take, for example, Robin Wood:

    http://www.filmlinc.com/fcm/jf08/deaddiary.htm

    Since I trust both of you guys, I'm just going to have to wait and see myself.

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  2. Can't say I disagree with you on any of the specific points you make about "Diary," but I feel compelled to stick up for "Day of the Dead," which remains my favorite of the series. More powerfully than any of the others, "Day" conveys Romero's emotional despair about the future of humanity without losing that faint glimmer of hope - embodied in the character of John -that compels him to keep making movies. Actually, I'll take "Day of the Dead" over any other Romero film except perhaps "Martin."

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  3. Kevin:

    I would rather Robin Wood is right in this instance. I wish our perceptions were switched. I'd like to see Diary as the summation of a career and not as a letdown. I'll be curious to read your comments (and please post here with 'em....)

    Joe --- I like "Day," just not as much as the other Dead films. I rated it three out of four stars in Horror Films of the 1980s.

    In fact, before Diary of the Dead, I've never ever rated a Romero film under three stars.

    (Of course, I haven't reviewed Dark Half yet either...)

    JKM

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  4. Anonymous8:00 PM

    Have you ever seen "HOUSE OF THE DEAD" (2003--starring Jurgen Purchow) and "HOUSE OF THE DEAD 2" (2005--starring Victoria Pratt and Sid Haig)? Both films were written and produced by the famous fan-turned-screenwriter Mark A. Altman. These films are a lot of fun and well-worth adding to your "Dead" DVD collection. In the first film, a character jokes that one day Romero will make his penultimate film--"Destiny of the Dead"...

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  5. DIARY is in my Netflix queue, but I'm not looking forward to it - I think that LAND should have been his last association with zombies, but unfortunately, to survive in this climate, one has to succomb to branding -- and it looks as though Romero has decided to be "the ORIGINAL zombie guy" in the already oversaturated market of zombiedom.

    Maybe he needs to team up with Stephen King again and do something that doesn't feature zombies. Of course, the problem then would be getting people to come see it.

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