George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead


After too many years away from the

camera, George Romero, in his advanced years, is enjoying a vigorous

second wind. It’s Romero, of course, who defined the contemporary

zombie movie (even though he still insists that he wasn’t aware, at

the time, that his I Am Legend-inspired Night of the Living Dead had

anything to do with zombies), and as zombie movies have grown ever

more commercial and crass, it’s Romero’s legacy — exemplified in the

great Dawn of the Dead and culminating in 1985’s Day of the Dead

that they’ve been systematically departing from. Romero proved he

still had some stuff with Land of the Dead, in 2005, which dramatized

issues of class in the U.S. against a backdrop that was simultaneous heavily

suggestive of the Iraq War. It was the biggest budget he had ever

worked with, and to some degree the new, ultra-low-budget Diary of

the Dead represents his retreat from Hollywood sensibilities.

It’s also a movie with problems. Romero has rebooted his universe this

time around, envisioning a new zombie infestation as seen mainly

through the camera lens carried by a group of film students stuck out

in the woods working on an uninspired horror project involving a mummy,

a girl, some high heels, and a flimsy dress. As they make their way back toward civilization, one of them becomes obsessed with documenting the carnage they encounter. Romero’s zombie films

represent comment on the world he sees as he conceives them, and this

one is all about the contemporary media — from the television news

cameras that uncritically, emotionlessly document shock-and-awe tactics

overseas to the self-absorbed style of hyperfootage that populates

YouTube and other online neighborhoods.

As Redacted and Cloverfield have

proved, this imitation of verité can be an awkward gimmick, especially if your goal is to

advance the narrative while maintaining suspension of disbelief. Romero

must have sensed early on that this particular jig was up. He

immediately has Debra, probably the smartest and most self-aware of these kids — and

thus the strongest — provide a voiceover narrative to

explain that she has assembled the footage after the fact, cutting it

together, adding footage gleaned from blogs and video-sharing sites, and overdubbing music cues to make the scares more effective. And, in an

early sequence set inside a hospital, Romero has Debra actually find a

second camera; now the director is allowed to make cuts between multiple points of

view. That helps, because Romero is a very strong filmmaker when he’s

in his element — and that element has never been faux-first-person

cinema. Despite at least one interesting shot in which one camera operator catches a glimpse of the other as a violent zombie attack unfolds in their impassive crossfire, Diary of the Dead is at its most engaging when it plays it loose with the subjective-camera conceit.

Tonally, Diary veers all over the place. The faux

newscast that opens the film feels like old times, with Romero staging

an undead uprising among a group of illegal immigrants coming back to

life on their stretchers. A few lines of dialogue in another sequence suggest that Diary is going down the path of Scream-like

self-aware horror parody (eventually it does go there, but only as an

aside); and a lot of loaded remarks about the importance of getting it

all on tape — these kids believe the end of the world will somehow

become more profound if it’s been nicely framed in hi-def — make the

film seem too insistent about its own meaning.

So calling some

of the material clunky would be generous, and Romero’s alarmist attitude toward new media feels old-fashioned. (In interviews,

Romero has taken to noting that if Hitler and Jim Jones were alive

today, they’d be bloggers.) For many the unrelenting self-consciousness

of Diary of the Dead will be a dealbreaker — it’s as much an

essay film as a zombie movie. Of course, If you’re into Romero on

auteurist principles, that’s not entirely a bad thing.

And when it’s

on, boy is it on. A sequence involving a mute Amish farmer is

completely out of place, but also utterly hilarious. With the help of

CG artists who attack the material with eyeball-popping, brain-melting

brio, Romero has devised at least a couple of entirely new ways to kill

zombies. His vision of a new power structure that sees a group of

strong black men keeping their cool and hoarding weapons in an anti-zombie

safehouse while the National Guard runs riot, looting its way across

the Pennsylvania countryside, is bracingly cynical. And his

insertion of stock footage from the Katrina disaster only amplifies a

sense of sorrow and anger at the failure and collapse of once-great

American institutions. (He’s moved to Toronto, but Romero remains, I think, a patriot appalled at the habits of his countrymen.)

Debra’s narrative provides another

function, especially as she comments on the film’s

haunting, surreal coda — the final image draws a straight line across

history from lynch-mob justice to Abu Ghraib torture. If you take her

sentiment to be indicative of

Romero’s feelings about his own material (and the real world outside),

it makes Diary of the Dead his most bluntly pessimistic film since

Night of the Living Dead, which is saying something. It’s a reminder of how urgent and pungent genre films can be, but rarely are. B

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