Even though I was 7 or 8 when I discovered horror movies, I really don’t consider myself a fan until I was in my early teens. The about page on this blog used to have this long winded story about how a friend and I would rent several movies a day from this little video store up the street from where he lived but that really is the genesis of my fandom. He eventually moved on, let the horror movie phase pass but I never let go. I never saw a reason to. There was a definite turning point, too. I can remember it clearly. It was a friday night, I was sleeping over at his place and we had a few movies in our possession. We rented Evil Dead 2, Dawn of the Dead and Nightmare on Elm Street 4. Nightmare could go get fucked. I was never a Freddy fan but he was. Neither of us had seen Evil Dead or Dawn of the Dead, so you can imagine how our night wound up. He was blown to pieces by Evil Dead, which I loved but the real treasure of the evening was Dawn of the Dead.
Neither of us had seen anything like it before. I’d seen Night of the Living Dead by this point on UHF TV (colorized, too) real late but I was too young to know or care about the Night/Dawn connection. As a matter of fact, I naively assumed that Dawn was some kind of cash-in on the original Night. What a fool I had been. Following the movie, I was obsessed with zombies. The apocalypse scenario, for some reason, has always appealed to me but replacing leather gangs in scavenged vehicles with legions of shambling zombies hooked me forever. Years went by and I went from watching Dawn of the Dead to analyzing it. It would occur to me at some point, at the height of teenage cynicism, that there was a message behind Dawn. It then became clear that George Romero had done this with his other zombie movies, too, but there was a subtlety that never made his social indictments the star of the show. His gory zombie movies managed to avoid being dismissed because they had something going on the background, like all great art. So you can imagine my disappointment with Land of the Dead, Romero’s hamfisted examination of the Iraq war and the Bush administration. It wasn’t a complete bust but years of yearning for a return to George’s best monster left me feeling cheated. I hoped that wouldn’t be it but the lukewarm fan reaction and the amount of time it took him to get back to zombies made me feel like it might be another 20 years before he’s back at it. I was surprised to see that George jumped back in the saddle so quickly. His new idea is a pretty good one, but as much as it pains me to say it, I wish he had taken a little more time consider it.
A handful of film students and their drunk wasted talent stereotype professor roll cameras during the earliest stages of the zombie infestation while trying to make a run for safety. One such student is obsessed with documenting the entire affair. His friends aren’t so thrilled about it. After an encounter with some zombies, one of their friends shoots themselves and a trip to the hospital sets the pace for the rest of the movie and clearly establishes the point that Romero is trying to make. What remains is the usual zombie movie formula of the cast being whittled down to a couple of survivors as the problem grows. A comical encounter with an Amish survivor buys the crew some time to repair their Winnebago before they roll on to the next set piece.
I’d really like to be nicer to George Romero since I consider him one of the greatest filmmakers of all time but his plan this time around is a bit flawed and it seems like the sharp edge of his subtle hand has dulled over the years. Cinema Verite, that ‘you are there’ filmmaking style that is so closely associated with newsreels, documentaries and Faces of Death has taken center stage recently. Through a series of coincidences, a handful of rushed, low budget zombie movies have gone into production, replacing the old guns blazing zombie stomps of yore with a cutting edge, web 2.0 approach to headshots and gushing bite wounds. I speak, of course, of the vastly superior [REC] from Spain and the “still haven’t seen it” American Zombie. The two that I mention, though, are newcomers. The director of the muddled, soft-horror flick Darkness and a shot-on-video cheapie. This is George fucking Romero.
It took a real long time for comic books to mature and if you ask me, horror movies are a lot like comics. They translate easily to the illustrated page and they’ve been making them for as long as they’ve been printing comics. The problem is that zombie movies are still waiting for their Watchmen or Dark Knight Returns; this one movie that is going to take a stale concept like the walking dead and turn it on its ear. The saddest part is that comics have already done this with The Walking Dead. Your move, zombie movies.
Conceptually, Romero is pointing out just how media saturated and obsessed we have become. Simultaneously, Diary of the Dead seems to applaud the amateur media for presenting the facts as they are while constantly deriding our camera-toting protagonist, Jake Creed, for having some seriously fucked up priorities. Because of this, everyone seems pissed off throughout the entire movie and we’re never presented with a Ben or a Fran. We’re left with a cast of nothing but Captain Rhodeses. To boot, the crisis never feels like a crisis. Most of the movie takes place on lonely country roads and the cramped confines of an RV. True to Night of the Living Dead’s legacy, radios and TVs fill in the blanks convincingly for those who are paying attention. Zombies occasionally show up and the make up is great but the confrontations come few and far between.
Also, I would usually bag on CGI gore effects since they never compose properly with the live footage and they stand out like a sore thumb. They’re getting better and Diary of the Dead shows off some innovations that depart from your usual CGI spatter. A jar of acid to the head of one walking corpse turns up a gore scene that demonstrates that George still has it as the acid eats away the flesh, bone and brain.
I had very high hopes for Diary of the Dead since reviews out of film festivals were unanimously in favor of the movie. Unfortunately, I just don’t feel like this is the case. In contrast with other contemporary zombie movies, Diary would be pretty good if it weren’t a film by George A. Romero, the first name in zombies. Unfortunately, it’s plagued by mediocrity. Its relevant social message can’t make up its mind about whether or not blogs and the everyman with a camera are an adequate replacement for a tilted, revenue-obsessed news media empire. You could examine whose reality is the most accurate in this instance, but the movie never goes there. The acting is often miserable as each passing death of a cast member is handled with only the slightest glance in the rear-view mirror. As their numbers thin, no one seems to give a shit and what’s worse, the drunk, cynical professor should have been the first to go but winds up hanging out like the Greek chorus as if to put some perspective on the situation through a gravelly, buzzed British accent, constantly sipping bourbon from a hip flask that never seems to run dry. I realize that the budget was low but George used to rise to the occasion when budgetary limitations dictated the scope of his scripts. I have no idea what’s going on here but I’m beginning to get the feeling that George may not have the support or vision necessary to make the kind of movies that he is best known for.