Romero Retrospective: Diary of the Dead

Ladies and gentlemen, bonsoir.  I am back from another week in Kobe (more on that in a later post), and also back with the latest installment in my six-part Romero Retrospective. This time we look at George A. Romero’s return to independent filmmaking with the experimental film christened Diary of the Dead (2007).  It is here that we witness a clear breakaway from the original storyline, making this cinematic effort a reboot rather than a sequel (a “rejigging of the myth,” in the director’s words).  The outbreak begins again, and we can only dive into the madness to see just what the master has brought to the bloody banquet table this time.

Hello! We’re not dead!

The Good

Making a complete about-face from his previous film with Universal Studios, Romero decided to go back to his roots as a maverick director and make an independent film through the newly formed Romero-Grunwald Productions (a team-up with Romero’s producer friend Peter Grunwald).  Diary of the Dead is unique in that it approaches the zombie epidemic from the point of view of several University of Pittsburgh (my alma mater!) film students who attempt to create a documentary to expose the truth of the undead menace, which is being covered up and manipulated by the media.  Jason Creed (Joshua Close) and his fellow classmates are in the midst of filming a mummy flick as a class project under the supervision of their faculty advisor, Andrew Maxwell (Scott Wentworth), when the radio begins to inform them that the whole world has gone to Hell in a hand basket.  Reports of the dead returning to life and feeding on the living flood in through various media outlets, but governments are quick to crack down and institute information control in an attempt to quell the panic that has gripped the globe.  Jason determines that it is his duty to show the world what is really happening by filming a documentary of the phenomenon while he, his girlfriend Debra Moynihan (Michelle Morgan), and their friends flee from the ghoulish hordes.

The rest of the film mostly involves the group’s various encounters with threats both living and dead as they attempt to seek out the places they call home (mostly well-known cities in Pennsylvania, incidentally).  Friends and loved ones are lost along the way and the psyches of the young men and women are nearly crushed as they face the inevitable collapse of civilization around them.  More important than the story, however, is the way in which it is told.  Since the entire feature is expressed through a first-person camera perspective (edited after the events by Debra), long, continuous takes are the rule of the day, and while Romero relied on hidden cuts to a certain extent, many of the scenes were literally done in one take, resulting in some rather impressive shots.  Starring the youngest cast ever to be used in a Dead film, Diary’s actors and actresses put their theatrical background to good use, and I believe that this enabled George to really push the limits in this particular style.  The relatively low budget (around $2 million) meant that corners had to be cut, but the discrete and unobtrusive use of CGI and digital effects by the people at Spin VFX allows Diary to dish out some mind-boggling scenes of carnage without looking like the next Left 4 Dead sequel.  George is clearly having fun with this film, and it shows in the many unique and innovative techniques that he employs to bring his nightmares to the screen.

Are we worth saving? You tell me.

The Bad

While Diary of the Dead is an innovative and technically impressive film that showcases the work of a great director given freedom to do whatever he wants (albeit on a shoestring budget), it is also a very big departure from the previous films in terms of tone and storyline.  These changes go beyond the mere first-person camera perspective, but they are also intricately intertwined in a dialectic relationship that makes the film what it is.  It really comes down to a matter of preference, and for me, I would say that I prefer any of the first four installments of Romero’s series to this one.  Why, you may ask?  Well, I shall tell you.

Diary of the Dead attempts to take up the topics of blogging, YouTube, media overload, censorship, and various other social issues spawned from the Pandora’s Box known as the Internet.  Social commentary has always been Romero’s strong point, but I believe that what made it so poignant was the very fact that it was underplayed and not openly stated.  Naturally one might find a few scenes of expository dialogue or philosophical ruminating by one or more of the characters, but for the most part, the satire and criticism are conveyed by the situations and images, and the viewer is left to draw his or her own conclusions.  While Diary certainly leaves us with food for thought, we are also inundated with countless analyses through the medium of voiceover narration.

As I watch this film, each time something profound has occurred <What is it? What gets into our heads when we see something horrible?>, or I think that I may have discovered some subtle form of social critique <It’s interesting how quickly we find out what we’re capable of becoming…>, I can’t help but feel like I am constantly being beaten <This is a diary of cruelty> over the head <Maybe you won’t make any of the same mistakes that we made> with a critical message <The more voices there are, the more spin there is. The truth becomes that much harder to find. In the end it’s all just noise…>.  To be honest, during my first viewing of Diary I was so distracted by the incessant chatter of exposition and voiceover narration that I was unable to give it a proper evaluation.  I was left with the feeling that the movie had done all the thinking for me and handed it to me on a gory platter.  Rather than being thought-provoking, I found it to be “thought-deadening,” as I could hardly hear myself think over all of the noise.

Putting personal tastes aside, however, it is here that one can actually find Romero’s true genius in this little zombie epic.  The film’s cinéma vérité techniques offer the viewer with the sense of displaced reality that only a documentary can provide.  We can fully immerse ourselves in the first-person perspective, almost as if we were Being John Malkovich.  Mirrors and switches to other cameras then break the association, but the overall style seems to extol firsthand truth and gritty reality, in stark contrast to the doctored and warped images supplied by the mass media to distort the truth and keep the real situation from the public eye.  Of course, the ultimate irony is that Debra is doing exactly the same thing when she takes up Jason’s film, edits it, and even adds music in the hopes of frightening the audience into “waking up” to (her version of) the truth.  The film includes more than 70 different media sources in the form of various news broadcasts and televisions encountered throughout the young people’s journey, and Jason’s film, completed by Debra, becomes just more “noise.”

And so, my main beef with the film is actually part of what makes it so genius, and I am forced to admit that George has once again proven himself the master of the genre.  If you can get past some of the more heavy-handed narrative elements, the film can be seen as playing with voyeurism and also the need to record our experiences and broadcast them to the world in our YouTube culture and blogging society.  There is also a clever theme running through the story where “shoot” is used to refer to both camera and firearm, culminating in the final scene where a zombie-bitten Jason pleads, “Shoot me,” as he receives absolution through a final Sacrament of Reconciliation with his lens-eyed god before Debra paints the floor with his brains.

Dead things don’t move fast. You’re a corpse, for Christ’s sakes. If you run that fast, your ankles are gonna snap off.

The Undead

So what about them zombies?  Well, despite the rather underwhelming budget, as mentioned previously George does an excellent job working past such restraints to serve up a wonderfully creative cinematic effort.  The people at Spin truly did a praiseworthy job on the film’s visual effects, the difficulties of which were compounded by the shaky hand-held camera, long takes, and lack of noticeable cuts in the editing process.  Gregory Nicotero (who also plays a zombie surgeon in the film) works his usual magic with the prosthetics, and while they are not on anywhere near the level he was able to achieve in Land, they are effective and mesh well with the digital effects.  An Amish man braining himself with a scythe to take out both himself and the zombie behind him, and a ghoul who has most of his head melted away by hydrochloric acid as he lumbers toward the camera are just a couple of the visual treats in store for horror aficionados.

In the end, Diary of the Dead is a film with a message (or many messages, depending on how you look at it), and in that I suppose it succeeds rather admirably.  Spotting cameos (Romero is the police chief) and trying to guess the film/horror icons behind the news report voices is fun, and in the end I have to say that George gives us another satisfying zombie film.  Is it as good as his first four films?  Maybe not, but still a distinguished addition to the ranks of zombie films being churned out these days.  In the next post I will be reporting on my Walpurgis activities in Kobe, Japan, and then it will be time for the final installment of my Romero Retrospective as I dissect Survival of the Dead.  Until then, good night, whatever you are!

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