Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Diary of the Dead

Writer/director George Romero has never been the most subtle of filmmakers. His zombie movies always functioned as social commentaries, his monsters acting as metaphors for all sorts of themes and ideas, whether it was consumerism, class warfare, or racial strife.

Diary of the Dead (2007) finds Romero perhaps losing faith in his audience's intelligence. Not content to have his zombies represent an idea, he has his characters explain that larger meaning, both to each other in the dialogue and to the audience in voiceover narration.

Remove the condescending polemics, and Diary finds Romero on solid if not spectacular horror footing. After charting the progression of the apocalypse from its beginning in Night of the Living Dead to the emergence of a dystopian society and its subsequent downfall in Land of the Dead, Romero goes back to the first night of the zombie invasion as a group of student filmmakers, out in the woods making a mummy movie, hears on the radio that the dead are returning to life and attacking the living.

The movie takes the form of a mockumentary, ostensibly filmed by the characters but mainly by Jason Creed (Joshua Close), who wants to document what's happening so the world can see the truth. Much of the film is shown from Jason's first-person perspective; we see what he sees through the lens, although the film occasionally cuts to another camera, including a security camera at a warehouse and even a cellphone video. The movie also includes other footage, including an opening at a crime scene being covered by a news camera that turns disastrous when the murder victims get off their stretchers.

Looking back on the movie, I still don't understand what Jason was hoping to accomplish by filming everything. True, the government is attempting to cover up the zombie apocalypse (poorly, I might add), and the traditional media have become so filled with spin and baseless speculation that no one trusts them anymore, leaving it to students, bloggers, hackers, and other citizen journalists to get "the Truth" out there.

But Jason merely documents what he and his friends go through and doesn't really provide any useful information that people didn't already know (other videos alert the students to the shoot-them-in-the-head weakness), and he seems more interested in getting visits to his MySpace page (speaking of the living dead) than helping people. As one character tells him, there's no one left to watch his movie, and his girlfriend Debra (Michelle Morgan) berates and scolds him for caring more about filming the dead than shooting them. Romero seems to be commenting on the uncertainty and panic modern media generate in their pursuit of ratings, and with all these different voices, they create noise instead of truth, but the scenario he elects to present this idea feels contrived and forced.

Debra is the would-be voice of reason, but she wears on the nerves because she's the one who narrates the movie. Her narration is so solemn, so self-important, and it over-explains everything, and worse, it interrupts the momentum of the movie, bringing it to a halt every time she begins to analyze what's going on.

Those thematic and story issues aside, Diary at least proves visually interesting with its presentation of the zombie apocalypse through the subjective camera, and the film contains a number of fun and spooky sequences, including a search through an abandoned hospital and an encounter with a deaf, mute Amish man named Samuel. The found-footage genre, especially with zombies, exploded around this time, with such entries as The Zombie Diaries and [Rec], but Diary demonstrates style and finesse with the format.

At least Romero knows how to hold the camera steady and capture the action we want to see, and there are some throwaway satirical jabs that get a laugh, like the radio commentator who says America used to be concerned about people crossing the border into the country, but the problem is now "those people who are passing the border between life and death."

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