DVD Review: Diary of the Dead - WBOC-TV 16, Delmarvas News Leader, FOX 21 -

DVD Review: Diary of the Dead

06/10/2008

This is probably proof that George A. Romero has no more new ideas, or isn't really trying to improve upon himself, or go any further logically with this franchise. Perhaps, this is Romero trying to re-introduce himself to a younger audience. Perhaps, this is him trying to be hip, cool, and relevant. If so, I'm not quite sure he succeeds.

On the DVD's special features, there are two brief featurettes that talk about how Romero wanted to go back to his indie roots. In his last film, Land of the Dead (2005), a $15 million budgeted, Universal Pictures release, the scope of it felt too much like a studio picture with all the usual requirements for action and horror, and not wholly inspired.

With this movie, a $2 million line-item affair, Romero wanted to get away from the big budget stronghold and go back to the beginning, to the guerrilla film-making style, which kick started his career and defined him as a master horror director. When it comes to that, I'm not so sure he succeeds there either.

This movie is essentially a remake of Night of the Living Dead (1968) in that Romero is pretending here like no one knows what zombies are, and the cast of college-age actors, and one middle-aged guy have to re-discover what zombies are and how to kill them, and all that stuff we've seen. This may have been an interesting idea on paper, but unless you've never seen a zombie movie before, or have no idea what a zombie even is, this is only entirely tedious for the audience. 

Romero even sets the tale just outside of Pittsburgh, as he did his 1968 classic. To make it somewhat different, instead of retreating to an abandoned farmhouse in western Pennsylvania, the group of desperate college students makes haste in their Winnebago to a lush Main Line mansion outside Philadelphia. 

Also, to make it somewhat different, Romero shoots the movie, as if the entire film were literally the lost footage of a group of kids making a documentary on their experiences of the first three days of this new zombie epidemic. Yes, the comparisons to The Blair Witch Project (1999) have already been thrown out there, and they're certainly accurate. However, Romero isn't as rough.

Yes, there are some rough edits. There are long, continuous one-shots of each scene, but Romero remarks on the DVD commentary that he didn't want to make the audience nauseous through the camera work. So, there's no real shaky camera moves. Romero really just wanted it to feel subjective, like the audience is the cameraman, or in this case the main character.

While it was a clever device to tell this story, the notion is a tad hackneyed. From a cinematic standpoint, the idea of documentary-style film making applied to fictional narratives is a technique that most feature films and even television directors have embraced heavily for the past decade.

This fictional documentary not only recalls attention to Blair Witch, but also to the recent monster film smash Cloverfield (2008), released a month prior. The main criticism in terms of visual style centers on the disbelief that one cameraman could perfectly videotape all this horror with almost near perfect precision. Yet, to his credit, Romero does address this.

Canadian actor Josh Close plays Jason Creed, the determined documentarian, who believes it's his mission to videotape these initial zombie attacks, raw and in the moment, so that he can upload the video onto the Internet, and be an instrument of truth to the masses. Josh feels, "If it didn't happen on camera, it's like it didn't happen [for real]." This is even in spite of his girlfriend, Debra, played by fellow Canadian and new actress Michelle Morgan, who's screaming at him to put the camera down, as zombies are attacking them.

In these moments and others, Romero is clever to criticize this 24-hour-news and You-Tube obsessed world that is fueled with digital technology, like the Panasonic HDX-900 cameras used here, or, fancy cell phones that allow anyone to become absorbed into the media, a media with no checks and balances, a free-for-all, a feeding frenzy, where misinformation is more easily spread, and manipulation can be so much more powerful.

I found it fascinating that in a montage of actual news clips that Romero culled, a reference to Orson Welles' War of the Worlds is made. Our dependence on technology and its prevailing nature could in fact make us more susceptible to such duplicity. The blogosphere would seem to be the remedy for that. Yet, Romero never properly addresses it.

Using a catastrophe like this to make the point of how filtered or warped the mainstream media is, and how it might come untrustworthy, and how blogs and vlogs might rise in a desperate attempt for truth, yet only creating a symphony of noise is interesting. Romero loses his punch though, as you never truly feel a breakdown of infrastructure. The film is too cut-off, too much of a wander through central Pennsylvania.

Yes, the Internet would be a helpful tool and there would need to be people who would have to be out there providing material, but in this context, it amounts to nothing but a gimmick. Romero needs the gimmick to jazz up what only adds up to a lame, standard survival flick.

On the DVD's audio commentary, Romero admits he employed traditional scare tactics, standard ones basically, and Romero said he didn't know if it would be scary. I can assure him that it's not. Despite the special effects, which delivered some limited, yet gory, zombie kills, the whole effort was a bit of a waste. 

One character in the film at one point says we can't predict what happens next. It's an instant laugh line because at that point the audience members who have seen at least any other horror film will be able to predict everything that happens next.

With the traditional scares and the predictable plot, the whole experience becomes rather comedic. To Romero's credit, he does play up the comedy here and there, which probably would have benefited him if he had simply made this whole piece a satire, a true comedic satire. All the elements are there. If Romero had simply pushed it, I would hail him.

There are hints when Jason Creed directs a scene from his movie "Death of Death." He has to tell his actor playing the mummy to shamble and his actress argues about having her breasts pop out. All of this is funny and sets a perfect stage for satire. There's even a hilarious moment later on when the college kids have to fight zombies with the help of a mute, Amish-looking farmer who communicate with a small chalkboard around his neck.

If you want to see a better use of subjective film-making, check out The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007). If you want to see a better use of documentary-style horror, check out Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006).

I fear Romero has lost his edge. Some filmmakers, even into their old age, like Robert Altman, Sidney Lumet, and Clint Eastwood, still maintained it. Yet, Romero seems to have paint himself into a corner and dulled down his razor blade. There's no nuance or zest to this ride. It's boring.

Here's some suggestions. You want to do a contemporary zombie film. Try supplanting it into a foreign culture. If zombies broke out, how would Muslims handle it? What would Osama bin Laden do, if he had to start fighting off zombies? Buddhists believe in reincarnation. What would the Dalai Lama do?

Wild, gory zombie films have been done like 28 Days Later (2002). Comedic zombie films have been done like Fido (2006) and Shaun of the Dead (2004). Not too many science fiction zombie films have been done. Why not go that route? I'm not saying zombies in space, but I would have liked more scientific study. What really causes zombies? Is it radiation, a disease? What's the real source or cause? Can it be prevented? Can it be cured?

Instead of doing the same thing over and over, Romero give us more. Last year at San Diego's Comic-Con, Romero talked with Max Brooks. He seems to be a worthy successor. I hope the movie being made of Max Brook's book is a whole lot better.

Two Stars out of Five.

Rated R for strong horror and pervasive language.

Running Time: 1 hr. and 35 mins.
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