Tuesday, June 17, 2008

George A. Romero Month, Film 10

After Land of the Dead I admit I was stricken. Harsh conclusions began formulating in my head. What if Romero never made another zombie film? What if he never made another film again? Jesus, this wasn't going to be his last word, was it? Granted it was only natural for films like Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later to be slicker and effortlessly more youthful, but I just thought it would have been a terrible damn shame if Romero never once tried his hand at delivering another zombie film to his ravenous fanbase. Midway through my freshman year of college, I was riding on a train and picked up someone's discarded newspaper. I flipped through to the entertainment and began looking up movie reviews. There, under Rambo, in bold, was the answer to my prayers.

Diary of the Dead
by George A. Romero
As is only to be expected of a Romero film, this picture is topical. Who's on trial this time? The Media and youtube culture. Like Cloverfield we are given the inside scoop on the apocalypse as it unfolds. Unlike that boyish film, Romero's has the balls to own up to its heinousness of character. This attitude was probably this film's saving grace, and it's probably the only time that a director's age gave him insight into a twenty-something's cultural phenomenon. We open on a college thesis film project being shot in the dead of night. They break for the night about the same time they start hearing ghastly reports on the radio and TV. Frightened, the young director goes off to find his girlfriend and by the time he gets to her and then finds his crew again, he's changed his manner. He is now humourless and intent on capturing every facet of his friends behavior during the crisis. Everyone from the project who's still around (one of the actors, Ridley and his girlfriend leave for his parent's house early on) decide to travel together to get everyone to their respective homes. This becomes tricky when they learn what all the fuss is about; shortly into their drive they happen upon a car wreck. When one of the charred victims gets up and starts trying to get into the big camper they stole from the film department, they all fall right into panic mode. Students Jason, Mary, Debra, Tony, Elliot, Gordo, Tracy, and craggy english professor Andrew drive to a hospital, an mute amish man's farm, a warehouse commandeered by a guerilla group, Deb's house, and finally to Ridley's mansion. During this pilgrimage the group thins and thins and thins.
Simple plot, right? In fact there isn't anything special about this film really, but goddamn it, it's better than Land of the Dead. Using digital photography and "real" performances, Romero gets to revel in the reality monster film genre and bite into post-reality TV media at the same time. When the big, crass cameraman in Cloverfield says "people are going to want to know how it all went down" it's a fantastic cop-out and characteristic of the really stupid mentality that drives many of today's college students. When Romero has his protagonist sit down in front of a mirror and say that he's going to record everything he sees and not waste the opportunity it feels more like some kind of arrested development than just a hobby. I run this piece of psycho-analysis past Toetag Production and the makers of the Saw movies, who year after year strive to invent ways to make it look like they've not only convincingly killed people, but in the most fucked up way possible. With this condition in mind, it bugs me that the last words of Diary of the Dead are Deb's questioning whether we (humans, or Americans anyway) are worth saving. Any college kid with half a brain knows that. NO! We aren't! And after you watched your stupid boyfriend film a bunch of his friends getting their faces bitten off by zombies, I believe you would know the answer just as well as anyone. Of course, that little slip-up isn't enough to ruin the movie.
The reason it works is because, like Land of the Dead, it is decently paced. Unlike that film it's engaging and I did care about some of the characters. It had a few arresting visuals (the ending in Ridley's mansion is pretty well done) and the characters were for the most part believable (I had a hard time accepting the drunk English supervisor, but he was still kind of fun, anyway). There were a few legit scares (this was actually a horror film) and Romero still knows how to work a cheap shock. Diary of the Dead moves pretty quickly, even if it does apostrophize a little more than it can get away with (Deb's voice over gets old real fast). I don't need to be told how boorish and post-modern America has become, I live there. Romero could probably have gotten away with not treating the audience like outsiders to the problem, but I do get why he needs to rub our face in it. He's angry and so am I, so I give him his space to cast stones. From someone who's almost never taken studio money or ceded creative control, I let it slide. If this was Dark Castle's Diary of the Dead, I might not be so generous. I'm just glad Romero got one final word in on the subject.

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