Friday, June 13, 2008

And The Nominees Are...

I reported yesterday that episode 2.1 ("Returned") of The House Between has been officially nominated as "Best Web Production" for the 2008 Sy Fy Genre Awards.

Today, the announcement video (featuring all the award categories and nominees...) is available for your viewing
here. Also, Editor-in-chief Michael Hinman writes about this year's awards at Sy Fy Portal, here.

The nominees in our "Best Web Production" category are:

"...Iliad" from "Star Trek: Odyssey," "Returned" from "The House Between," "Star Trek: Of Gods and Men," "Webisode VIII" from "Sanctuary," and the "Star Trek: New Voyages" episode "World Enough and Time."

I would just like to say what a tremendous honor and thrill it is to see our super low-budget independent series, The House Between nominated in this category alongside such competitors.

If someone had told me a year ago that our dramatic program would be nominated alongside such ventures as those starring Original Series actors George Takei and Walter Koenig, with franchise names associated with popular shows such as Stargate and Star Trek, I would have said it wasn't likely! Thus today is a happy day for me and everyone involved, and I want to congratulate the cast & crew of The House Between for all they've done to make today's nomination a reality. And my appreciation extends not just to my team, but to the dedicated viewers and fans who have continued to watch the show, talk about the show, and who have fallen in love with the characters and stories as much as I have.


My deepest gratitude to all of you...and a sincere congratulations to all the nominees.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The House Between Nominated for Best Web Production!

Sy Fy Radio last night announced the nominees for the 2008 Sy Fy Portal Genre Awards. Among the nominees for "Best Web Production" was my independent series, The House Between. In particular, our season two premiere, "Returned" was named as a nominee (one among five).

Fans will be allowed to vote in this, and all other categories, so if you like The House Between, please vote for it (once a day is allowed!!!) More information to come as I learn it. The nominees will be presented in writing at Sy Fy Portal tomorrow (Friday). Expect an update...

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: House on Haunted Hill (1959)

This classic (but low-budget) William Castle horror film introduces viewers to a haunted house (actually the Ennis Brown House in Los Angeles); a supposedly "authentic" locale where seven people have already died gruesome deaths.

As the film opens, wealthy and oft-married business Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) sets up the movie's premise in his narration. Specifically, he and his (fourth) wife, Annabelle (gorgeous Carol Ohmart) throw a "ghost" party at the haunted house. They invite five guests (who arrive at the house in a caravan of "funeral cars") and offer them $10,000 a piece if they can survive twelve hours locked inside the house. The doors and windows are locked and barred. The party favors inside the house? Loaded pistols ensconced in tiny black coffins.

The five guests include a cold-fish psychiatrist working on a theory about hysteria and fear, Dr. David Trent (Alan Marshal); Nora Manning (Carolyn Craig), a modest working-girl who needs the money to support her family; Ruth Bridgers (Julie Mitchum), a bitchy gossip columnist with a bad gambling habit; dashing test pilot Lance Schroeder (Richard Long); and the twitchy Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook), who has already survived one harrowing night in the house on haunted hill and claims his brother was murdered there. Furthermore, he claims that there are two severed heads laying about on the premises. He's either stark raving bonkers or the only person who knows what's coming.

"There's a been a murder in almost every room in this house," warns Pritchard as viewers are escorted on a tour of the premises. Undoubtedly the creepiest room is the vast wine cellar. There, underneath a trap door, is a vat of boiling acid. Note to visitors: avoid it all costs. The acid destroys everything with hair and flesh and is thus the perfect medium for a murder.

House on Haunted Hill's premise is brilliantly and cleverly set-up by both director Castle and writer Robb White. And the film itself is a study in economy: just a handful of interesting and diverse characters in a mostly empty house (I've used that one myself...). But what makes House on Haunted Hill so much fun is the central conceit: that -- when frightened -- people are unsure of what they've seen and can be manipulated into believing and doing things that seem against their character. In our society today - a fear-based society if ever there was one - this psychological aspect of the film holds up remarkably well.

The 1950s represented a time in American society wherein psychology was growing especially popular and broadly acknowledged; especially in the middle class. As a rational movement, psychology was "invading" the culture at all turns and this is especially true of the horror films of the day. The Bad Seed (1954) asked viewers to contemplate psychology's nature vs. nurture argument. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) assessed psychology and determined that it could be manipulated to explain away uncomfortable truths (like alien invaders or ideological witch hunts). And then there was House on Haunted Hill, examining the fear response, and the manipulation of fear. You'll see, by the way, if you watch them, that all three films feature a psychiatrist/psychologist and usually in a villainous capacity; perhaps expressing the population's distrust of "shrinks." Don't tell Kathryn.

The game of fear in House on Haunted Hill is being waged against the background of a bad marriage. Namely that of Frederick and Annabelle Loren. Annabelle claims to fear for her life since Frederick's last two wives died of heart attacks (at age 28), and Frederick is certain Annabelle has already attempted to kill him once (a poisoning). The ghosts and the guests are just chess pieces to be moved around in this couple's battle for supremacy, domination and survival. Given this depiction of marriage as a competition, the film offers some exceptionally fine (if cruel) marital banter. My favorite is Annabelle's comment to Frederick that "Darling, the only ghoul in this house is you."
That comment also ties into the film's flirtation with the supernatural. Pritchard is convinced ghosts exist ("only the ghosts in this house are happy we're here," he states), but the evidence of the supernatural in House on Haunted Hill is ambiguous to say the least. Chandeliers shake and fall; blood drips from a ceiling (and always on the gossip columnist); and a severed head or two shows up to terrorize Nora-- but we never actually see a ghost. I rather like this approach, especially since the film's "game of murder" focuses on human nature rather than the paranormal. What we are seeing in the house is a psychological game, and the only ghosts are the ones generated by fear. And the skinny one on a pulley...

That stated, the film's one supreme (and still totally efficient) jolt involves a bit of a cheat. Alone in a small-room off the wine cellar, Nora backs into a frightening white-haired lady who appears in the frame suddenly. She not only appears monstrous (with a wild mane of white hair and dead eyes...), she sort of levitates/glides across the wine cellar floor. This seems to me to indicate that she is of supernatural origin, but Vincent Price's character, Loren, explains her away as being a caretaker of the house. Then how does she glide like that? Well, her name is Mrs. Slydes (slides...).

Anyway...

Despite that bit of cheating, House on Haunted Hill remains a terrific and economical horror classic from a bygone age. Vincent Price is front-and-center here just the way you want to remember him: charismatic, eloquent, charming, arrogant, clever, larger-than-life and with a mean-streak indicative of the future Dr. Phibes. And despite some creaky effects, the film is still suspenseful enough to keep you engaged with the characters and their situation all the way through the denouement.

There was a terrible remake of the film in 1999, one that discarded the film's psychological veneer and sense of ambiguity about the supernatural, so it's still this House that's worth seeing. Even fifty years later. True, we can no longer see this effort in the glory of William Castle's Emergo (a technique which levitated a skeleton through theater auditoriums...), but with the story's focus on the human psychology, there are quite enough skeletons in the closet (and haunted house) on hand.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 51: The Invaders (Season One; 1967)

Available on DVD at last is the first season of the 1967-1969 Quinn Martin genre classic, The Invaders (in gorgeous, vibrant color). For those who don't quite remember it, The Invaders is the grandfather of paranoia and horror television series; amongst the first such ventures to posit that "THEY" are amongst us: alien invaders (hidden in human form save for a pinky finger that juts out at an odd angle...), bent on our destruction.

Pre-dating The X-Files by 25 years and the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica by 35 years (to to mention other similarly-themed series such as Invasion and Threshold...), these alien invaders in human bodies "have a plan" - to coin a phrase - to occupy and dominate the Earth. Accordingly, much of The Invaders' suffocating aura of paranoia arises from the fact that it is difficult to distinguish between human beings and extra-terrestrials. And worse, the aliens have already infiltrated every level of American (possibly global...) infrastructure. Yes, it's pretty much the path Ron Moore has tread with the Cylons on the new Battlestar Galactica; more evidence that everything old gets plundered to be new again.

The Invaders
commences with one of the finest, most exquisitely-directed pilots I've ever seen. The episode is entitled "Beachhead" and in this inaugural program, audiences are introduced to dashing architect David Vincent (Roy Thinnes). Thinnes is a perfect leading man for this venture and this era -- the late 1960s -- and this Alpha Male shares the belligerent but virile yin/yang of that era's other leading men like Sean Connery, Patrick McGoohan, Robert Vaughn, William Shatner and Charlton Heston. Which means he's attractive and arrogant at the same time; both entitled and enticing. It's a master-stroke to put the beautiful but bellicose Thinnes into this particular situation (facing an alien invasion alone), because audiences expect this American paragon to win and, shockingly - he doesn't; or at least not usually. Remember, only Nixon could go to China...

But let's not jump the gun. In "Beachhead," David Vincent is out on a road trip alone, driving by blackest night when takes a wrong turn (literally and figuratively). We see his car run roughshod over a sign reading "road closed" but it might as well have read "dead end." Vincent navigates his car through a thick mist and then parks near an abandoned roadside eatery, Bud's Diner. As a voice-over narrator asks viewers the question "how does a nightmare begin?" we see the answer for ourselves: Vincent awakens from his late-night highway-hypnosis to see an impressive alien saucer land in the field just feet beyond his car. Vincent's face lit in pulsating hues of alien crimson, we watch as emotions like wonder, amazement and fear cross Vincent's face (in extreme close-up). This moment is a watershed: an awakening for the character in more ways than one.

After Vincent's encounter with the alien saucer, things are never the same for this man, and since Larry Cohen (of It's Alive fame) is the creator of the series, that means we're in for something clever and even a bit subversive just beneath The Fugitive-like tableau of the series. In this case, the series depicts a WASP-ish figure of the establishment (David Vincent) suddenly introduced to the new America of the mid-to-late 1960s; the subculture or emerging counter-culture. Through his "radical" belief in an alien invasion, Vincent finds himself shunned by figures of the American ruling class (co-workers, government officials and so forth) and even hunted by them (particularly the police force). These individuals now view Vincent with disdain because he has forsaken his safe "role" in white, middle-class American society for that of a prophet...a doomsayer warning of planetary emergency.

In one episode, "Nightmare," a group of white rednecks in rural Kansas beat-up David at a diner called "The Lunch Counter" and it is impossible not to be reminded of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and how - literally - there was no seat at the table (or lunch counter) for those outside Nixon's "silent" and (mostly white) majority. David is pulled off a lunch stool while minding his own business, beat up, dragged away by the police and jailed...with no charges leveled. The Invaders, in depicting an outcast member of the silent majority searching desperately for legitimacy, says much about the America of the day and the fears of that time about speaking out; about dissent.

Making David Vincent's claims of alien invasion that much harder to prove, some Invaders have "evolved" and no longer bear the telltale finger anomaly (which is oddly similar to a corrupted "peace" gesture from the 1960s). Even more dramatically, when destroyed in battle, the Invaders disintegrate in red flame, leaving behind no evidence of their presence. The end result is that Vincent just looks like a kook again and again, unable to co-opt others into his paranoid fantasy.

The Invaders begins as a superb paranoia trip, and the second episode "The Experiment" ratchets up the fear-factor to an incredible degree for the 1960s. Here, the Invaders appear as archetypal men-in-black. These menacing figures in black fedoras and trench coats systematically kill enemies who have witnessed their plots. They do so with small black disks which - when applied to the nape of the human neck - cause cerebral hemorrhage and mimic a natural death. The Invaders also arrange for a plane crash in this episode, hoping to murder a prominent scientist who is about to reveal the alien plan to a conference in New York. The scientist is ultimately killed, betrayed by his son, (played by a young Roddy McDowall). This war of the generations (then known as "the generation gap"), with young Roddy decrying his father as an "enemy," is, not coincidentally, controlled by the Invaders. They keep the son in line with brainwashing drugs; another commentary on the 1960s, only this time the drug culture of the day.

Each episode of The Invaders finds David Vincent moving from locale to locale in hopes of providing evidence of the alien menace. He finds an abandoned town whose economy has been destroyed by Big Business (again - aliens!) in "Beachhead." In "The Mutation" (January 24, 1967) he travels to Mexico and meets a female Invader (Suzanne Pleshette), one who is indistinguishable from humans because she has developed emotions (unlike the others). Again, this particular plot is the well-spring for many episodes and concepts on the new Galactica.

In "Genesis," (February 7, 1967) Vincent learns that the Invaders have taken over a sea lab in hopes of resurrecting a dead leader. In "Nightmare," (February 21, 1967) the American farmland is targeted by the Invaders as the aliens deploy a weapon that causes locusts to swarm and attack. The photography in this episode alone makes it a worthwhile entry to the canon: there are an abundance of beautiful shots of in a wide open cornfield, Vincent outrunning the locusts like he's Cary Grant in North by Northwest (1960).

Each episode of The Invaders is fifty minutes long. The series aired before commercials had eaten into the broadcast hour (which today is 42 minutes). As a result, these episodes do tend to move more slowly than modern audiences might prefer. In addition, Thinnes is asked to carry much of the series without much aid from the writers. What I mean by that is that the screenplays do not delve - at all - into Vincent's background or even his human psychology. How does he keep fighting? Is he tired? Angry? Remorseful? Lonely? In his singular focus, Thinnes is almost an immortal James Bondian figure here: facing down the enemy and consistently winning battles but losing the war (sounds like Vietnam, no?) There are no large story-arcs; no serialized stories on The Invaders and today that too feels like a serious deficit. Instead, the episodes are stand-alones and you are left wanting to know more about Vincent.

Were the series to be remade today, I suspect we'd get much more information about this hero as a human being - as a fallible man -- and a lot less of his Invader-smashing. As it stands, one episode after the other features Vincent stopping the alien plan of the day, only to move on and do the same thing again. That does get tiring, and truth be told, a little boring, but The Invaders is photographed so beautifully, and the social subtext of the series (going into the transitional year of 1968) makes the series much more than the sum of its occasionally inadequate parts. In time, the black trench coats and fedoras give way to streamlined blue jumpsuits (blue seems to be the color of the alien technology too), a format change that makes the aliens less scary, more like agents of SMERSH or something. But the first several episodes of The Invaders are hardcore horror. You almost can't believe how dark and sinister they are. They also remind me of The Prisoner with Vincent a scorned man alone facing conspiracies, corrupt authority and multiple brain-washing techniques (including, inevitably, alien leeches).


The best way to enjoy The Invaders, in my opinion, is to view it as a product of its time (the late 60s) -- and also, perhaps, as a product significantly ahead of its time (since there have been so many imitators). However in 2008 -- more than forty years after the premiere - the production values have aged and so - importantly - has the manner in which these tales are vetted on TV. So now The Invaders seems old, I suppose. But if it's old, it is also colorful, strange and remarkably intelligent. If that kind of thing floats your flying saucer, this series is a powerhouse of paranoia.

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.