February 14, 2008

Diary of the Dead

Ugh, more leftovers...

Grade: C –
Director: George A. Romero
Starring: Michelle Morgan and Jose Close
MPAA Rating: R

Running Time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

George Romero’s zombie films have, to his fans, assumed the rarified air normally reserved for, say, the latest Woody Allen comedy or Martin Scorsese gangster flick. Even as the undead genre winds its way through revival (28 Days/Weeks Later; Cabin Fever) and parody (Shaun of the Dead), Romero’s imprimatur affords his ongoing work a certain level of cachet … and critical lenience.

Diary of the Dead, Romero’s fifth zombie movie, is full of characters exuding single-minded grit. Unfortunately, they are the zombies, because the survivors traversing the director’s latest apocalyptic rendering are as uninteresting as they are unimportant. A class of young film students and their professor abandon production of their own amateur horror movie when the actual flesh-eating undead begin to rise. The group grabs a camera, hops into an RV, and start traveling from one harrowing misadventure to another.

Diary is presented under the guise of an amateur film under the ironic title “The Death of Death,” which compiles handheld camera footage the group captures during their odyssey. Apparently, they also found time in the midst of the end of days to splice in various surveillance camera video, digital effects, and a voiceover narration, not to mention uploading the whole thing to MySpace. The plot is typically one-note—zombie attack, grieving a loss, pointless bickering, followed by another zombie attack—and punctuated by dialogue so banal and hollow it sounds as if it was actually written for the cut-rate project this movie pretends to be.

Fictional amateur filmmaking slowly becomes a cover for actual lazy filmmaking when the students conveniently stumble across a second high-def camera inside a hospital (?!) just so Romero can start employing multiple angles and cutaways; even with this allowance, the camerawork remains conveniently omnipresent. Romero intentionally inserts film-editing defects even though we are told at the outset that the students’ movie was recorded and produced using digital equipment.

Amid the obligatory splattered brains and oozing entrails, Romero examines the ubiquity of our multimedia culture, a world where “if it’s not on video, it’s not real,” and assails how the YouTube generation has become desensitized to violence, disaster, war and death. In his reach for contemporary relevance, Romero at one point even uses actual post-Katrina footage to illustrate the urban chaos wrought by the zombies. (Cloverfield was pilloried for its mere fictional resemblance to New York on Sept. 11; imagine the outcry if it had incorporated video of the Twin Towers toppling.)

Here, Romero’s legendary skill at weaving social commentary seems forced and more than a little hypocritical. More than once, the screenplay equates shooting a gun with shooting a camera. This banal assertion ignores how the light of day often galvanizes public opinion, seals the historical record, or reveals truth, whether it be Holocaust horrors, the genocide in Sudan and Darfur or merely the role of surveillance video in identifying criminal perpetrators.

Moreover, a total lack of discernible irony leaves only obliviousness (or sheer chutzpah) to explain how this message can be delivered by a filmmaker who has made his living and legacy replicating bloodshed then committing the same for mass public consumption. Diary of the Dead ends with a couple of redneck hunters hanging and beheading a white, female zombie, after which the narrator wonders aloud whether our world is worth saving. Our world? Sure. On the other hand, it may be high time to put Romero’s cinematic menagerie out of its misery. Call it, well, The Death of Death.

Neil Morris

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