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Wednesday, June 4, 2008
  DVD Review: Diary of the Dead

Diary of the Dead has an intriguing premise:
George A. Romero, the father of the zombie movie, returns to the genre he created with a Blair Witch-like take on the undead. It was to be a commentary on the evolving media that would also be a throwback to the indie spirit of his original Night of the Living Dead. The problem is, Diary of the Dead is a failure on nearly every level.

First, a superfast recap of the mythology of Romero’s undead movies: Night of the Living Dead was released in 1968, birthing the zombie genre as we know it. He followed that up IV poles are poor weapons against zombieswith Dawn of the Dead 10 years later, a film that many (myself included) still consider his masterpiece. In 1985 he released Day of the Dead, which seemed to wrap the zombie cycle as a trilogy, though Romero said for years afterwards he had more undead stories in him. The breakout success of
Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later in 2002 put zombies back on the mainstream map, and it wasn’t long until Romero secured studio funding for his own apocalyptic zombie epic, releasing the underappreciated Land of the Dead in 2005. (I think it was unfortunately overshadowed by the success of Zack Snyder’s slick 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, which most hardcore zombie fans seem to hate for reasons I never could understand.) Land of the Dead’s apocalyptic ending seemed to close the door on zombies for Romero, at least in the internal continuity of the films.
Romero’s zombies literally. In Night they’re the mindless flesh-
eaters horror buffs know and love. In Dawn they congregate on a mall (“Some kind of instinct,” one character speculates when asked why the zombies flocked to a shopping centre. “Memory, of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.”) It was a pretty sharp little bit of commentary materialism on Romero’s part, particularly for the late ‘70s. By Day of the Dead, a zombie held in captivity was trained by a crazy scientist (the best kind of scientist you can put in a movie) to use tools, like a gun. And by the end of Land of the Dead, Romero’s zombies had amassed into an army, organizing and communicating amongst themselves.

With Diary of the Dead, Romero goes back to what he calls “the first night,” updating the initial rise of the undead for modern times. A group of film students (and their drunken professor) is shooting a horror movie for a school project in the woods one night when the rotting flesh hits the fan. A couple of the students start shooting the chaos around them as they try to make it home, and the idea is that the footage was assembled after the fact by one of the survivors into the “documentary” you’re now watching. It’s a cute idea, and one Romero gets some mileage out of, but the problem with a concept like that the film has to stick to its own internal rules in order for it to work. (Cloverfield didn’t blow me away, but the filmmakers did a great job of adhering to the concept, as much as that adherence gave some people motion sickness.) For the most part Romero plays by his own rules, but admits in the commentary that he cheats a few times.

The gimmick also conceals Diary of the Dead’s miniscule budget, and does it well. This also means, however, that there aren’t as many zombies, which means fewer kills, so gorehounds take note: you may be disappointed. Still, some of the zombie gags are pretty excellent (arrows in the head, pretty much everything with a badass, dynamite-throwing Amish mute), and a struggling zombie hanging from a noose is a nicely creepy image. The problem with Diary of the Dead isn’t the zombie action; it’s what Romero’s trying to say with it.

Romero’s zombie movies have always been known for their social commentary, which is far from subtle. In Night, Romero cast a black man as the lead, something that, in 1968, was totally unheard of, and it’s still considered an important (if admittedly small) moment in the civil rights movement. Dawn dealt with consumerism, and Day of the Dead was about, I dunno, the military being evil or something (insane gore aside, it’s considered by many to be the weakest of the original three movies). Land of the Dead continued the trend 20 years later, using the post-zombie-apocalypse society to comment on class issues as well as the Iraq war –
Dennis Hopper’s evil businessman is clearly meant to evoke Dick Cheney in particular and the Bush administration in general. With Diary of the Dead, Romero takes aim at what he calls “emerging media,” which I guess means the Internet, but he tackles the issue with the grace and understanding of an old man shaking his fists at the kids on his lawn.

Clearly Romero has a bone to pick; the social commentary in Diary is heavier than anything in his previous movies, which makes the thud with which it lands even louder. I’m not sure if Romero understands what blogging and
YouTube and Myspce actually are, given his apparent disdain for them – really, blogs are just people writing, and YouTube is simply an uncensored America’s Funniest Home Videos for the digital age – but I guess picking on the traditional news media is too passé for an old hippie like Romero (and I say that with affection; my favourite part of the commentary is his description of the race and class issues around Hurricane Katrina: “All the folks without suntans skipped town, man”). But while Diary of the Dead is filled with his sound and fury at the new digital media, it signifies nothing. It’s just ham-fisted and tired, equating cameras to guns (both “shoot,” get it?), and offering clichéd complaints about the detachment of the media. Many of the kills feature other characters standing by in the background with cameras. Not that subtlety has been ever been Romero's thing, but it grates here because he comes out and just says it (near the end no less, looooong after his point has sunken in), when a character actually screams for the passive cameraman to stop standing there and help her. It's bad enough just listening to the cameraman/protagonist repeat over and over how important it is that he document what's happening. We get it, George.

The film-student characters are just the same clichés we've seen dozens of times: the steely heroine, the annoying geek, the asshole jock, the vain princess, etc. The characters in his previous films broke stereotypes (at least the best ones did), and were always interesting studies in how different people deal with crisis. Some can hold it together, some come apart slowly over time and others just lose it right out of the gate. In Diary of the Dead, I found all the characters to be annoying and shrill, with pretty much sums up the film itself. I get that he still has a lot to say, but Romero’s a day late and a dollar short here, and I'd have preferred it if he'd left the zombie genre on a high note with the far superior Land of the Dead. Or maybe he can do another zombie movie to redeem this unfortunate misfire (which,
according to IMDB, is in the cards).



There’s a commentary track with Romero, DP Adam Swica and editor Michael Doherty that’s vaguely interesting, though Doherty does the thing where he seems to only talk about editing (“we snuck an edit in here….this next part was really difficult to edit”), but Romero’s very complimentary to them, and they’re clearly huge fans of his. One cool factoid Romero mentions is that because actors are unionized in CaJust a suggestion dude, but maybe put down the cameranada, some zombie extras were in Diary of the Dead, Land of the Dead and Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake, as all three were shot in Toronto (which I am now rechristening Zombie City).

The making-of documentary For The Record commits the cardinal sin of presenting itself as a "feature-length" doc, but you can't watch it all at once; you have to select each chapter as an
individual featurette (what's especially puzzling is that you can 'PLAY ALL' on another collection of special features. Ridiculous.) Overall it’s a mixed bag; the bio piece on Romero himself is nice, if a bit fluffy, and the rest covers the actors, CGI effects, makeup and other aspects of production, but none of that is terribly interesting.

Also included are “character confessionals,” shot Real World-style with the characters talking to the camera. These were originally meant to be sprinkled throughout the film itself, but they were wisely cut. They just showcase more of the irritating characters, and less than halfway through the 20-minute running time (never should have hit ‘PLAY ALL’) I was hoping a zombie would come and rip my throat out. There’s also a collection of recordings of the stars that provide vocal cameos in radio broadcasts overheard throughout the film, including
Stephen King as a ranting religious nut, Quentin Tarantino, Wes Craven, Shaun of the Dead co-writer/star Simon Pegg and Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy/Hellboy 2 director Guillermo del Toro. Cool stuff.

The rest of the extras are basically just items culled from the Myspace Diary of the Dead page created to promote the movie, and they include a boring and useless four-minute “set visit” featurette made by some zombie-movie nerd who’s so stoked to be on a Romero set he seems to be on the verge of hyperventilating at any moment. His excitement is only made funnier by the fact that the end result was a pretty bad movie.

The lone bright spot in the web-related features is the collection of short zombie films made for a Myspace contest. As fan-made shorts tend to go, some are very well done, and others are absolutely painful to watch, but it’s cool that they were included on the DVD. There are some nice zombie gags, though Opening Night of the Living Dead, about zombies going to the movies, manages to fail spetacularly at coming anywhere close to living up to that marginally clever title. My favourite was & Teller (which didn’t actually win the contest), about Teller from comedy/magic duo
Penn & Teller (played by the man himself, who also co-wrote) living as a survivalist loner in a post-zombie-apocalypse world after he was forced to kill Penn, who was turned during one of their shows. Brilliant.

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