Friday, October 17, 2008

REVIEW: Diary of the Dead

***** (5 stars)! Better than The Shining! There, now you can put my idiotic quote on the front cover.

Diary of the Dead is George Romero’s latest zombie movie in the series that started with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, and has spanned the decades with Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, and Land of the Dead (Which pre-emptively killed the inevitable contest to figure out what you could have followed Twilight of the Dead with). When Romero started with Night, he was a young Pittsburgh-area filmmaker with little money, an inexperienced cast and crew, and no reputation, although he also had a pretty original vision for a horror movie. Whether you ultimately like his films or not, he infused small group conflict and a wry sense of social satire into a gory shocker movie, and that’s a combination I’m not aware of any earlier films that even attempted, which is now fairly common. Dawn, Day, and Land showed that while Romero was slow to upgrade the acting talent and production values of his films, he could continue to make entertainingly cheesy horror movies. Dawn is actually one of my favorite movies, one of the few films I completely agree with Roger Ebert in his appraisal of (I‘m sure he‘ll now take the time to cite me in his future articles on the film). It has both a dark sense of humor and a genuine feeling of panic and claustrophobia. Romero’s not only the founder of the modern Zombie Survival horror sub-genre, but the creator of most of its best films. Actually, there’s a lot of zombie movies that are as good or better than Romero’s films, but Night and Dawn are genuinely fantastic horror movies, and the fact that everyone still thinks of Romero’s clichés as the basis for zombie horror is telling.
"Yes, for only $9 a month, the price of a ticket to Diary of the Dead, you could support an orphaned child in war-torn East Peoria."

So imagine my dismay when I rented his latest movie, which returns to the series’ ultra-low budget roots, and found that in his elder years, Romero has lost his damn mind. Having acknowledged that his zombie movies have always been somewhat amateurish, Diary resembles a final-semester film school project. Considering that its main characters open the film making their own film school horror movie, maybe this is some kind of 17th-level irony. Maybe it’s actually the ultimate satire of film school and direct-to-video horror movies. If so, Mr. Romero, I salute you and kiss your virtual feet. Now give me my $4.99 back.

"Oh, thank God it's you. For a moment, I thought you were one of... one of... (shudder)... one of those Extreme Makeover: Home Edition people."

Usually, in these reviews, I go through the movie’s entire plot. This time around, I don’t think anyone would care, so I’ll keep the actual chain of events brief. The movie starts with some film school students making their own crummy mummy movie in the woods near Pittsburgh, when they hear on the radio that the dead are suddenly coming back to life, like they do in every Romero movie (as usual, there is no continuity with the earlier films in terms of time, so the zombie plague is definitely beginning in 2007). Now, in past Romero movies, the kids’ approach would be to fortify themselves in some secure location and fight to keep the zombies out. But this is (was) 2007, and it’s more trendy in disaster sci-fi movies to make a road trip out of this situation, so that you can have a wider variety of set pieces. The kids go RV-ing to take their various members back to their families, initially taking the female lead to her home in Scranton (sorry, but Zombie Dwight Schrute is never glimpsed). Suffice to say that things aren’t going well, and the gang has some nasty little adventures in a hospital (bad place to go in these types of movies), a militia/survivalist outpost (very, very bad in a Romero movie, but only if the militia are white males, so they‘re okay here), the lead girl’s home where her family’s supposed to be (gee, what do you think’s going to happen?), and so on. They ultimately decide to go to a rich friend’s mansion and hole themselves up there for a while. Things don’t go well there either.


The characters… are actually okay. We don’t get much backstory on them for the most part, and they’re not particularly interesting or sympathetic, but the actors infuse a decent amount of personality into their roles. That’s really all I want from these types of films, not that this one has the kind of gloriously memorable rogue’s gallery that Predator, Aliens, or Dawn of the Dead had. There’s Tracy, the sassy Texan and aspiring chest-baring actress; Mary, the sensitive Catholic girl; Tony, the level-headed friend; Ridley, the idiot in the mansion who wears his mummy costume for about a week for the sole purpose of a few jokes at the end when he gets zombified; Jason, the de-facto lead male who is obsessed with filming everything; and Andrew, the aging, bourbon-swilling English professor (professor who is English, not Professor of English) who supplies most of the film’s dry pseudo-wit. I don’t have a real problem with these characters, but unfortunately, I do with the female lead, Deb, who’s Jason’s girlfriend. Every fifteen minutes, she lectures Jason about lugging around his camera and filming everything, repeatedly making the criticism that in his mind, nothing happens if it’s not on video. Seriously, she spells out that same point about three or four times. I definitely sympathize with her for calling Jason an egotistical idiot, if not for failing to realize that he really does have no redeeming qualities as a person, but I could have done with several fewer lectures delivered in a flat, condescending tone. And that’s not the worst part: she’s also the narrator, popping in to deliver dull ruminations about the human condition in the middle of scenes, as if Romero had lost part of the original soundtrack or something.

Ever visit a Hardees near closing hour? Yeah, I don't anymore either.

Now that you’ve gotten the basic story out of the way, I’ll finally get around to the major “innovation” of this movie. Kind of like The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield, this is a horror movie that’s shown to us entirely from the perspective of cameras, and pretends that it’s a filmed account of actual events rather than a slick movie with a third-person perspective. I actually generally like movies with this gimmick, as they usually aim for genuine suspense and mystery, and feel more frightening for their realism. Plus, people who usually get sick or dizzy at these movies will be glad to know that the camera is mostly very steady. However, I have two major problems with the technique in this particular film. First of all, unlike Blair Witch or Cloverfield, this movie’s presented as if it’s been edited by film school students after the fact, to the point where the action switches back and forth from other cameras (including those that the kids probably wouldn’t have had any access to) without any jarring cuts. Plus, the whole movie has narration, the footage is extremely clear, there are obvious stylistic cuts, and there are even slow-motion segments. In a sense, it’s fine that Romero wanted to do something different. But it also seems like he didn’t have the patience to use the limited perspective that earlier movies like this restricted themselves to. Except when the characters are directly referencing the camera, the movie tries to look like a regular horror film, which is difficult to make sense of when one of the lead characters is holding the camera. Camera-perspective horror movies always require a leap of faith on the part of the viewer, but there too many examples of when the cameraman’s friends are fighting with zombies or being eaten by zombies, and the man doesn’t react except to zoom in. In fact, the man doesn’t seem to get fazed by much of anything, never losing focus when zombie hordes are bearing down on him. Man, I think this guy has a job as a war correspondent in his future.

No, this isn't my first blog. No, I don't want to talk about the first one.

The other problem is that whereas Romero’s always had a rabidly Socialist (or perhaps more accurately, anti-Conservative) streak to his movies, which only got closer and closer to the surface in his later films, his social commentary here is 100% up front, fully spelled out, and completely distracting from the friggin’ zombies this movie’s supposed to be about. Every one of the Romero zombie movies, except perhaps for the original Night, has directly criticized some aspect of American life or human nature that people of Romero’s perspective associate with Republicans: consumerism, a strong military, and class distinctions.

Edward Scissoredarms

Here, his message seems to be that the traditional media and the government are working together to cover up the truth--in this case, the direness of the zombie plague and extent to which the world is falling apart, with clear allusions to Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, and 9/11 conspiracy theories. I’m not really sure Romero’s watched a TV news broadcast in the last twenty years, since it seems pretty obvious to me that there’s nothing the press likes better than mocking White House press releases or doing a good panic-on-American soil story. Romero’s point seems to be that independent watchdogs need to use YouTube and blogs to get the truth out. Okay, I generally respect that opinion, and actually agree with it, even if not for the same reasons Romero does. YouTube’s great for calling attention to stories that mainstream press generally ignores because of bias or queasiness at stirring controversy with the sensitive audiences.

"I'm Samuel Hello, Attorney at Law. I specialize in barn-raising accidents. I get money for YUNZ!"

But Romero must have never watched YouTube, because the kids release their movie in long, carefully-edited chunks. Something tells me that short, instantly shocking videos would be a heck of a lot more often-viewed than long stretches of these people bickering with each other, interspersed with the occasional zombie attack. In the movie’s logic, it takes about five minutes to edit a video and upload it, then three minutes for it to become the most popular thing on the internet. And why does everyone still have access to the internet, much less keep using it? I guess the world’s not thrown into such chaos that people don’t have time to plop down and browse YouTube, and Charter Communications isn’t so disrupted that their service is failing (more than the usual three-hour period per week, you cheap bastards). I don’t think Romero has any idea what’s going on in this movie. A hospital’s been overrun by zombies, but there’s hardly any blood or bodies anywhere. Outside, the zombies are everywhere, yet people need alternative media to know what’s going on. The roads are almost empty, tons of people are dead, and entire hospitals are nearly deserted within hours of the plague, yet people have electric power and are still browsing the ‘net for cool videos. OMFG! 5 STARS! TAT WUZ AWSUM. I LUVD WEN TEH ZOMBY ATE THE GUYZ ARM. BTW, GET FREE PR0N AT HOT-CATHOLIC-SCHOOL-GIRLS-CITYDOTCOM! AND CHECK MY MYSPACE! I LIKE RADIOHEAD! And through it all, we have to hear Deb bitch about the “truth” and watch crappy montages of Internet Explorer windows and stock helicopter footage of the LA riots and Katrina evacuations that is supposed to pass for zombie footage. Romero’s also really subtle in his criticism of George W. Bush, having the president declare from his ranch that Americans need to “remain vigilant.” Clever. I’m sure that in the re-release, depending on who wins the 2008 election, they’ll digitally change it to say that Americans need to “quit being a bunch of young whippersnappers,” or “become instruments of change and reach out to the Zombie-American community.”

Barack Obama flees a Western Pennsylvania campaign rally in his armored vehicle, having unwittingly enraged the bitter, gun-toting, religious types.

Besides the confused social criticism, and its complete disconnect from what’s actually happening in the movie, this is a completely by-the-numbers zombie movie. Completely interchangeable with a million other direct-to-video movies if it weren’t for Romero’s name and the conceit of it all appearing via real cameras. Let’s run down the checklist:

  • Character having the terrible task of shooting a zombified friend. Check.

  • Character trying to find loved ones that we all know are DEAD, DEAD, DEADDER. Check.

  • Military guys who we think are going to be helpful, but wind up being thugs. Check.

  • Rednecks having fun taking target practice at zombies. Check.

  • Rich guy who doesn’t take the zombie threat seriously, and thinks this is all a big excuse to party. Check.

  • Scene with a bunch of well-armed soldiers who still manage to take casualties to mindless, eminently vulnerable zombies that move like they have hemorrhoids. Check.

  • Observation that there aren’t enough bullets in the world to kill all the zombies. Which I’m absolutely certain is not true. Check.

  • Ironic, post-Scream idea of a horror movie within a horror movie, and the inevitable talk of horror movie clichés that wind up coming true in the outer movie. Check.

  • Lead character’s final question of, “Are we really worth saving?” Check.

He made just one mistake. He didn't floss.

So we’ve got a bad zombie film made worse by the incoherent narrative hook of using footage spliced entirely from in-movie video cameras. I’m sorry, George, but it’s time to pull the plug. You were the Cal Ripken of zombie movies: steadily producing solid, sometimes excellent work, over a frikkin’ long time. But now you’re hitting .230 and you can’t move a lick at third base. Forget about World of the Dead, Romance of the Dead, Return of the Dead-i, The Hunt for Dead October, and The Dead’s Greatest Bloopers. Just focus on preserving your legacy and enjoying your retirement before you become, yourself, dead.

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