And You Thought It Was Safe(?)

Diary of the Dead (2007)
October 29, 2009, 8:43 pm
Filed under: Movies, Reviews | Tags: , , ,

Brains!I don’t know whether Diary of the Dead was an honestly bungled attempt to move the zombie movie forward as a format…or a flagrantly half-assed attempt to make up for Land of the Dead. I can’t see George Romaro’s heart. Anything is possible. Making a decent zombie flick only seems an impossible task, thanks to my relative inexperience with them. Dawn of the Dead was the last great hope, and that was 1978. The wave crested, and it’s been rolling back ever since we left that mall. Why can no one admit that mall was the last good idea George Romaro had? Why must we have Diary of the Dead?

Framed as a documentary-within-a-movie, titled The Death of Death (“a film by Jason Creed”), Diary is, as far as I’m concerned, exactly the type of film George would’ve made had he put together a Dead movie in the 1990s. Full of young, pretty people who’ve never seen zombie movies before, Diary ends up being much less than we’ve come to expect from ol’ George.

After a local news cameraman’s footage of a triple murder-suicide, which serves as our prologue and concludes with the victims rising from their gurneys to attack the MTs, we meet Deb (Michelle Morgan) in voice over. She introduces us to our Jason Creed production, who’s title is a slick twist on a biodiversity article written by Eugene Lindon and appearing in TIME way the hell back in 1989. Intended as a straight-horror film, Deb’s magic voice explains that it’s became more than that now, what with the zombie Apocalypse and all.

Deb’s voice serves to explain why Diary is much slicker than Cloverfield, or their common progenitor, The Blair Witch Project, filled with a consummate professional’s trappings. (Deb even admits, “I’ve added music for effect. Trying to scare you.”) This is not found footage: this is a finished product, immediately placing itself above those other, lesser handheld films you see on your Netflicks. And right off the bat I’m disappointed: I expected a straight-up, POV zombie movie, goddamnit. Things like music, strategic cuts, and coverage are inappropriate distractions that do not fit the format, George. You can’t have it both ways. You’ve got forge on, and make your own way, and if that means reinventing the wheel, well…sucks, but…it’s not like you haven’t done it before.

POV #1In any case, the movie-proper opens amongst some of U of Pittsburgh students making a mummy movie in the woods. The radio tells them about six dead people mysteriously waking up. Mummy man Ridley (Philip Riccio), takes this as his cue to leave, girlfriend in tow. The rest of the cast immediately loose my confidence when they mutually agree to split up. Retards.

Our cameraman, and head retard, Jason Creed (Joshua Close) begins obsessively “documenting” the zombie carnage as soon as he discovers his obligatory girlfriend, Deb’s, dorm deserted. “Are you still shooting?” she asks. “What are you shooting?” Good question. The Internets reveal chaos is already spreading, along with the usual, authoritative disinformation. Deb’s voice chimes in from the future: “I think that’s what started the panic – not knowing the truth.” Not, say, all the dead people coming back to life? Think that had anything to do with it?

Give 'em a little headway, why don't'cha.Deb-of-the-present is thankfully unaware of her future-self’s judgment calls. Somehow, our group reforms in the back of a Winnebago, and it’s time for the roll. There’s Mary (Tatiana Maslany) behind the wheel; it’s her Winnebago. There’s Tony (Shawn Roberts), the make-up man, pulled right from a Ralph Loren catalog. There’s Tracy (Amy Ciupak Lalonde), from Texas, and her jock boyfriend, Gordo (Chris Violette). There’s token-nerd, Elliott (Joe Dinicol ) handling the AV. And getting drunk in the back we find Professor Andrew Maxwell, Emeritus (Scott Wentworth – whom I recognized as Det. Kermit Griffin from Kung-Fu: The Legend Continues, even though I didn’t know it until the internet verified my sneaking suspicion). The gang’s headed to Scranton, where Deb’s folks have a house that might just be isolated enough to hold out against the living dead. Let the betting begin: who’ll make it there alive?

Do we care? Not particularly, no. Beyond Deb, the cast is vague and flat as a whole, filled with people as empty as the zombies they kill. After three zombies form an impromptu roadblock, Mary mows them down, and is so distraught by this she pulls over and tries to eat her little lady Derringer. Failing to put one through her own brain, the gang does the right thing and trips to the nearest hospital. This end badly, of course – but ol’ Gordo becomes quite the capable zombie killer. So, of course, a former patient (and current corpse) has to bite him, allowing everyone to learn the rules of zombification all over again. Deb’s voice over says, “God had changed the rules on us,” but that’s bullcrap, Deborah. Ignoring all those shitty remakes, we find Romeroian zombies haven’t changed much in forty-odd years. Make-up and digital blood effects have gotten better, but so what? I want money shots, I watch porn.

Another hallmark of Romero’s flicks: there’s no time for speculation. The usual hoaxes, viruses, and to electrochemical upsets are mentioned in passing and dismissed. We’re watching a road movie here, and realize this as soon as we leave the hospital.

POV #2Gordon dies of his shoulder-bite, leaving Trace to punch his ticket. My favorite character in the film, a deaf Amish man, gives our main lunch meat shelter after the Winnie breaks down, but that’s just a temporary pit stop. An “army” of the dead descend on poor Amish man’s barn as Tracy fixes up the fuel line. Poor Amish man doesn’t make it, though he checks out in a way sure to please the gorehounds. (I can tell it pleased Romero.) The kids (what am I saying – they all look my age) find their way into the sheltering arms of the Token Black Resistance, and Deb staring-contests their Keith David-esque leader into parting with some supplies. My hopes that he’d take her aside and advise her to, “Ditch that camera-lugging motherfucker before he gets his dumb ass killed,” are in vain. As are Deb’s hopes for a happy family reunion. Her folks (and little brother) are already dead to the world, yet they still move. So its on to Ridley’s house. Remember Ridley, the mummy man? Turns out he’s a trust-fundian, and the surviving Scoobies find him still clad in his rags, the family mansion deserted. Mom and Dad ate the staff, and the staff bit Ridley’s girlfriend, but it’s okay. They’re all “buried” in the pool house out back. The main house has a steel reinforced panic room all gassed up (where’s the electricity coming from?) and ready to go. But is that a bite mark on Ridley’s arm?

And so what? George, are you, of all people, actually going to argue that a sensationalist media environment inures us to real violence? Tell that to the next PTSD sufferer you meet, George. Better yet, have a bodyguard do it. You might want to keep your face arranged in its present shape.

“Why are you still shooting,” indeed. Jason seems to be powered by altruism. Halfway through the film, he argues for the validity of uploading to his MySpace page, creating an online Malius Zombifacarum. This scene features some good acting from Morgan. Her Deb is so obviously disgusted with Jason’s logic she doesn’t even try to argue the point. Nor will I, except to say, that’s fine, dude, as long as the lines still work. As if no one in this wacky, parallel dimension has ever seen a zombie movie. And don’t even try to tell me this is set on the same day as Night of the Living Dead. A cheaper cop-out I have not heard in a long, long time.

A period-piece remake of Night might look interesting – but only if Romero succeeds at channeling his younger self. While Diary’s meant as an “update” of the zombie flick, the presence of YouTube, cellphones with cameras, and the vague references to Katrina and those phantom Weapons of Mass Destruction are all incidental throw-away lines, anchors the plot tosses aside as it moves from set-up to set-up. Without them, the film is decoupled from time, and could just as easily have come out in 1999 as 2007. “There are over two hundred million video cameras in people’s hands,” a disembodied voice (not Debs…something she edited in for effect, surely) tells us, during one of the many disjointed montages  that invade the main footage. “What gets into our heads when we see something horrible?” Deb asks, “…but we don’t stop to help? We stop to look.” Alright. But we’ve been stopping to look since the explosion in home video technology, way back in the 1980s. Instead of focusing on that, Romero chose to take on that what probably seemed a more important issue, that decade’s militarism…and do it in as highhanded a manner as possible.

Still, Day of the Dead at least tried to add some twist to the mix with its “intelligent” zombie and its implicit questioning of just where the line lies between the lands of dead and living. It tried, damnit. Diary of the Dead doesn’t try to be much of anything. This doesn’t even feel like Romaro anymore. It feels like most of the crap zombie pictures I’ve seen these last five years, and fully a third of the crap documentaries available on YouTube, and others. There’s more money behind the cameras, but all the money in the world can’t make me care about anyone other than Deb.

She was kinda cute before she got dead.She is the Buffy of our piece, and Morgan does a good job fleshing out her transition from college student to bad ass. The other cast members stand still for a remarkably long time, their characterization coming in fits and starts too disconnected to be meaningful. They have less to do and fewer things to go on than their zombified foes. At the end, Deb’s voice asks, “Are we—” collective humanity “—worth saving?” In your current state, no. It seems the last twenty years have only reinforced Romero’s inherent nihilism. He seems to have given up on us, as an audience and a species.

These days, old George appears to be firing over the heads of his core fans, aiming for today’s crop of shallow, vacuous teenagers. To this end, he makes shallow, vacuous movies that look like a dozen other pictures, produced twenty years ago by less-talent individuals. Even my vacuous, teenage self would consider Diary of the Dead an insulting waste of time. I can hear him now, shouting down from the past, voice aimed toward George Romaro: “Tell me something I don’t fucking know.” Of course our cultural epistemology is in crisis. Of course we’re being led around by lunatics and lairs. Of course we live in a world of multiple, incompatible truths. But you don’t have the courage of give us that in this, your first true Dead movie of the twenty-first century, George. The truth (really, your character’s truth) is an attempt to synthesize something out of not a whole hell of a lot, really…

Good luck with that, George. I’ll be over here, with my popcorn and your old flicks. Come and get me when you have your next hot idea.


1 Comment so far
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Perhaps Romero should have retired with Day of the Dead.

I would like to have seen his Resident Evil movie though…

Comment by Filip Önell

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