Monday, March 3, 2008

A Frank Review of "George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead" (2007)

The Short Version? The Blair Zombie Project
What Is It? Zombie Horror.
Who's In It? Nobody.
Should I See It? No, unless you were big on lonelygirl15.

Yesterday, I talked about my long history of watching horror movies, and I'm especially fond of the Romero-style "dead." I'm perfectly happy to call them "zombies," as I'm not one to stand on ceremony, and that is how the creatures are popularly known. In fact, I'm perfectly willing to cast the net more broadly than most, as I consider everything from the Rage-infected humans of "28 Days Later..." to the vampiric hordes of "Lifeforce" to the eponymous "Aliens" to be "zombie movies." I suppose I should take a page from "Resident Evil," and declare my love for "survival horror," but again, they're all just zombie movies to me. I like a small collection of smart, determined individuals struggling against overwhelming hordes of mindless abominations, preferably of the undead variety in a familiar backdrop.

This gets me back to the Romero-style dead. The horror in these creatures, when properly employed, does not come from their speed, capabilities, viciousness, nor visage. They are the creeping inevitability-- no matter how pathetic they seem, nor how easily they can be outsmarted, outgunned, or outrun. Ultimately, there are just too many of them, they cannot be stopped, and everyone will succumb to them regardless of their beliefs or abilities. We are all among the dead eventually. Great "dead" movies confront us with our mortality and our hubris more than ghouls and gore. They are moaning, mindless, and a reflection of our innermost failings and unavoidable doom.

I've been reading reviews of Romero's latest "dead" picture, which is 60% Fresh(ish) at Rotten Tomatos. The previous "Land of the Dead" and Day of the Dead" are at 74% and 79% respectively. Many reviews note that "Diary" finally broke Romero's streak of great "dead" pictures, being fair-to-middling. I don't fully understand this, as I haven't truly enjoyed a Romero flick since "Dawn," and in some respects "Diary" is better than the previous two installments. However, it is still a mostly joyless chore to watch, much like those other two.

I was supposed to see George Romero's "Diary of the Dead" with a friend, but his fiancee got sick, and I really needed a nap. I slept until 11:30p.m., and realized that the last showing of the film in town I was likely to catch before it left theaters was that night at 12:40 a.m. I was slightly apprehensive about the thought of walking out of what was guaranteed to be an empty theater alone at 2:30 in the morning after watching a zombie movie. However, there were 2-4 other patrons in my theater, and the movie was in no way disturbing. The best moment was when someone's head kept bopping over the corner of the exit stairway, likely cursing the few of us keeping him from cleaning the auditorium, but resembling one of the shambling dead while obstructed.

In the film, Romero attempts the same ham-fisted social commentary as in "Land," this time targeting the emotional exhibitionism and egocentric detachment of the YouTube/reality programming era. Now, a good social critic can watch some poor soul on a streaming video trying desperately to connect with humanity and express themselves via an inherently impersonal barrier medium. Romero, unfortunately, just sees their delusions of grandeur in the midst of an opportunity at unlimited access to information and "truth." His subjects are supposedly contemporary, but his mindset is still entrenched in 1960s radicalism, so that his characters are just soapboxes to express his editorializing. This problem is made worse by Romero's actually having money to pay "talent" rather than whoever was around that could speak dialogue, begging impotently for the audience to respond to PYTs of both genders going through his motions without an inkling of verisimilitude. Very much like every "dead" movie since "Dawn," come to think about it.

Where "Diary" improves on the post-70's installments is in returning to realistic surroundings, as opposed to the underground military facility and the "Mad Max" post-apocalyptic ridiculousness. "Diary" also has a visceral pull thanks to the first person perspective from his subject's video cameras. This mode puts the viewer into the action, without the nausea of "Blair Witch" jerkiness, and with the limited scope that allows the bogeymen to reach out of the blackness at you. There was much gnashing of teeth when Romero was removed from "Resident Evil" in preproduction, but based on "Diary," the real loss is that he wasn't hired for "House of the Dead" instead.

On the other hand, there's so very much wrong with the movie. The "characters." The "actors." The dubious motivations. The episodic nature of the narrative, which plods through such silly territory as the militant black militia and the deaf Amish man communicating via chalkboard. To a large degree, "Diary" seems to exist to either criticize or crib from the many zombie movies of recent years. It's less a story as a storehouse for bits Romero didn't manage to get into his other films. At a mere 90 minutes, it's amazing how long and meandering this mess felt while watching. I hope I never feel a compulsion to see it again, but I'm confident I will, and will be the poorer for again wasting my time.

For such a revered figure, George Romero hasn't made very many good films. The more I look at his filmography, the more I feel he absorbs the material around him and spits out a byproduct. The late 60's and 70's were an excellent time for subtle, relevant, sophisticated films. The 80's were a time for excessively violent action fests. The "Dead" films of those decades reflect their time, and I suppose I'm sad that the dead of the oughts are so empty, slick, and self-important, because it speaks ill of us all.

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