George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead

Directed by George A. Romero, 2007

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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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Posted by Bryant Frazer on February 13, 2008 8:00 PM

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