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Diary of the Dead

March 28, 2008

I’ve never really bought into the intense approbation that follows George A Romero around, specifically by the horror movie buff crowd, and specifically in relation to his supposedly great Dead Trilogy. That tag is a little tired, of course, following the fourth in the series, Land of the Dead in 2005, and now the latest, Diary of the Dead. The Dead Quintet? Doesn’t really work, does it?

Anyway, commentary on modern society or not, The Dead Series (oooh, maybe that’s better, bet it’s been used) has threatened for many years to be Horror’s most accomplished crossover franchise. Even if you’ve never seen one you probably have an impression of their essence, some vague notion of what they’re all about. Massed ranks of lumbering, green-faced zombies, tearing chunks out of the living whilst also turning the camera in on ourselves to make some sort of wry observation. Right?

And you’d not be far wrong, let’s be honest. Night, Dawn, Day and Land have all been just that, and Romero’s reputation has trotted along behind each, happily soaking up the varying degrees of kudos and praise that come his way.

Dawn is the movie that most fans will point at as being the bona fide classic, and certainly it’s the most successful. It helps that in “when there’s no more room in Hell the dead will walk the Earth” it has one of the all-time greatest taglines, but it just seemed to strike a chord with so many people. Even that certified horrophobe, Roger Ebert, believed it to be:

brilliantly crafted, funny, droll, and savagely merciless in its satiric view of the American consumer society.

And so, with his latest entry into the series, Romero has rebooted the entire thing by taking the story back to its very origins, the initial outbreak of the zombie plague. Catching, perhaps, the Redacted bug from Brian de Palma, he has mushed things up big style this time around and the rather flat and undynamic style that I found hamstrung the first couple of movies, is replaced by a panoply of varying film stocks and viewpoints. There’s CCTV, mobile phone footage, TV reportage, YouTube style downloads and a mess of faux amateur guff all fixed and re-cut by a group of film students who are making an independent horror film when they become aware of the big news story on their doorstep.

There’s not much new in this regard, of course. The Blair Witch camera-holders were film students, and suddenly realising that there’s this new thing called the internet will not be having anyone throwing themselves back in their cinema seats with amazement any day soon, but it can’t be denied that as a vehicle upon which to hang the story it has some credibility for our video-hooked generation. And, of course, that’s the point. The opening sequence of news footage is particularly strong, and much of the mock-up TV material really is very well done indeed. Similarly, it’s hard not to get carried away with the ‘downloads’ that the crew (travelling cross-country in a Winnebago) manage to snaffle from the ‘net.

But there are huge problems, most notably with the acting, which is mostly fairly poor. An exception to this is Michelle Morgan, as Debra, the girlfriend of Jason who we rarely see, he being the guy behind the main camera. Debra begins the whole shebang by telling us this is Jason’s film and she’s cutting it together for whoever might find it. She’s very good, but everyone else is pretty woeful. Nothing new, I’m afraid, as one of the things Romero was never very good at was getting decent players in. This is distracting, and irritating, and when the movie is actually trying to say something about how we assimilate data, about our visual addictions and the responsibilities we have to ourselves and others, to suddenly have a real stinker mess up the dialogue by making it parodical, renders it a travesty.

Second, we have, as we had with Cloverfield, the problem of drop-the-fucking-camera-already. Obviously, we need close-ups of the zombies, but 100% of us, I’m sure, would have abandoned the idea of documenting this kind of nightmare about 15 minutes in. Jason, to try and get around this, is made out to be artistic and earnest; two very laudable but notoriously difficult concepts to emote with any success. It should come as no surprise therefore that he comes across as a) an asshole, and b) someone willing to get every other idiot into deep, deep trouble. You can’t rail against a world of trials and tribulations when you’re shouting at the dick on the screen to act like a decent human being and sort himself out.

Third, it tries too hard to counter the earnest subtext by introducing a very poorly advised comic element towards the end. As the movie begins we see the group making a low-budget horror film where a Mummy is stiffly chasing a voluptuous girl through the forest. My hand slapped hard against my forehead when it dawned, at the end, that they were going to do this for real. Bad, bad idea. It’s a joke that falls fatally flat. Earnestness makes a reappearance (with, incidentally, a truly excellent ram-the-point-home coda) but this stupid interlude holes the boat beneath the waterline. It seems dumb, that in a forty year career, no doubt learning as he goes along, honing his craft, that in a 90 minutes movie where he can essentially mess about with convention to his heart’s content, Romero feels he has to so spectacularly get a three minute sequence so wrong.

Still, all that said, perhaps there is something to this Romero guy after all. There is a great deal to admire here, and to finally ask if we’re actually worth saving is a sentiment with which I imagine a lot of people will eagerly coincide.

Despite being a fair distance up itself, which I kind of expected, this Diary is one worth taking a sneaky look at.

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 2, 2008 2:11 am

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    Project Mgr.

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