George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead

| February 15, 2008

“It’s just a zombie movie.”
“With an undercurrent of social satire.”
Spoken by Professor Maxwell (Scott Wentworth) to his troupe of college film students in George A. Romero’s latest zombie satire, the rejoinder isn’t subtle. Diary of the Dead puts its intentions front and center from the start, to the point where anyone seeking strictly splatter-a-minute thrills may find himself staring at his watch.
This is not to say that Diary of the Dead, which features a talented crop of young Canadian actors and a meta-movie conceit involving The Death of Death, a documentary of civilization’s last hours shot by the film students, is short on what passes in some (mostly online) circles for quality fan-boy entertainment. Wes Craven, Guillermo del Toro, Quentin Tarantino, and Stephen King all lend their voices to the project, and the whole thing resonates with the faint hum of cultural criticism, relevant if off-key and overplayed.
After footage of a police shootout is posted to the Web, and the world watches victims of a murder-suicide throw off their gurney sheets to gobble throats of ambulance workers, civilization crumbles. Economies collapse, cities rend themselves limb from limb, and the undead wheel shopping carts through deserted streets. These are especially nasty zombies, however, because in addition to devouring the living (thereby adding to their number), they seem content to let themselves be filmed by anyone with both a pulse and a cellphone lens.
Those millions of handmade movies are of course posted to YouTube, where they are consumed by this class of still-living zombies, whose ubiquitous presence behind videocameras, PC’s and camera phones render them dead to life.
Among these is the director of the student film, Jason Creed (Josh Close). Though making a horror movie outside of Pittsburg when the outbreak starts, he quickly shifts gears to bear witness to the far greater horror of real life. If only the dead could speak. Then again, since the sole method of re-killing Romero’s zombies is to shoot them in the head, they might not have much to say. Jason, however is all eyes and ears. As his name might suggest, he considers it his duty to record the bitter end of the world, and it is to him we owe the movie. A bow on his part might be in order, but Jason is ultimately picked off by the undead, and it falls to his girlfriend, Debra (Michelle Morgan), to put the wraps on The Death of Death.
Professor and student crew in tow, Debra and Jason (in pre-death zombie mode) set out across Pennsylvania in their friend’s ailing Winnebago. Along the way, the group comes across black separatist survivalists and a mute Amish farmer who makes taking a pick-ax through the forehead look like fun.
Unlike typical late-adolescents, Debra and her friends are trying to crawl back into the family bosom. As Debra muses in a voice-over from Jason’s film, “You spend your whole life trying to get away from your parents, but when the shit hits the fan the only thing you want is go back home.” Home may be where the heart is, but for Romero, home is where your mother eats your father’s heart.
The gang eventually makes it to the outskirts of Philadelphia, where Ridley (Philip Riccio) has holed up in his parent’s mansion, secure from the zombie onslaught behind a citadel of stone walls and (what else?) video surveillance. The fortress isn’t as safe as it sounds, however, and soon clichés are invoked, genre-jokes are fulfilled, and our heroes are fending off the creeps. A patient approximation of handheld camerawork by cinematographer Adam Swica lends the sequence a few goods scares, but, like the rest of the movie, the set-up is obvious and tired, as if the director, who made his mark in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead, has had enough of sleepwalking corpses but finds himself unable to wake up.
Here’s an idea for the sequel, which has already been announced. Maybe Romero should try putting the zombies behind the camera, instead of in front of it. Flesh-and-blood actors filmed by exhausted artistic eyes could be truly terrifying. Wait a minute, isn’t that what we have here?

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