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George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead
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by Peter Sobczynski

"A Heart-Ripping Work of Staggering Genius"
5 stars

“Diary of the Dead” marks the sixth time that writer-director George A. Romero has explored the cinematic potential of the dead coming back to shambling life with an insatiable taste for human flesh–after reinventing the zombie genre with his landmark 1968 debut “Night of the Living Dead,” he followed it up with the gaudy and gory comic-book excesses of 1979's “Dawn of the Dead,” 1985's highly pessimistic “Day of the Dead” and the 2005 comeback “Land of the Dead” and penned the script for a 1990 remake of the original film that fleshed out (no pun intended) the original in intriguing ways. Considering that the man has only made 15 feature films in his entire career (actually 14 ½, since he co-directed 1990's “Two Evil Eyes” with Dario Argento”) and that none of those other films, with the possible exception of “Creepshow,” his 1982 collaboration with author/kindred spirit Stephen King, have even come close to receiving anywhere close to the critical or commercial cachet of the “Dead” films, it is tempting to look at Romero as just another one-trick pony who is lazily cranking out one zombie flick in a way to give audiences the only thing that they want from him in order to avoid the unfortunate fates that have befallen such fellow horror mavericks as Tobe Hooper or John Carpenter, both of whom are now in the bizarre position of watching uninspired remakes of their previous masterpieces being churned out by the very same studio system that won’t allow them the chance to make anything new. Of course, as anyone who has actually seen Romero’s subsequent “Dead” films can attest, he has hardly been simply treading water by repeating his early success ad nauseam. Instead, he has been using the basic concept as a springboard for a series of fascinating films that serve both as incisive commentaries on the world Romero sees around him and as gut-crunching horror epics. That trend continues with “Diary of the Dead,” a fairly stunning example of powerhouse pop cinema that is as formally dazzling, thematically resonant and darkly funny as anything that he has ever done before and yes, there are even plenty of satisfyingly icky moments to behold as well.

Unlike Romero’s previous “Dead” films, which did not carry over any characters or individual storylines from movie to movie but which moved the overriding arc of the dead taking over the world along in a gradually expanding and chronological manner that took us from their first stirrings to the point where they now vastly outnumber the living, “Diary of the Dead” takes us back to Day One to offer us a new vision of how it all began as seen through the eyes of those experiencing it as it occurs. The conceit of the film is that we are watching “The Death of Death,” a documentary from University of Pittsburgh film student Jason Creed (Joshua Close) chronicling the early confused days of the zombie apocalypse. After a prologue consisting of the raw news feed of a crime scene that offers the first glimpse that something is terribly wrong (a news crew that arrives to devour yet another tragedy, a father who murdered his wife and child and then killed himself, are themselves devoured by their putative subjects), we cut to the woods where Jason and a small group of classmates are shooting a cheesy mummy movie as a class project under the not-so-watchful eye of their alcoholic teacher, Professor Maxwell (Scott Wentworth), when the first confusing reports of what is happening begin appearing on the Internet. While Ridley (Philip Riccio), the star of the film, suggests that they all hole up at his parents’ nearby mansion and takes off with his girlfriend, the others decide to make their way back to school and Jason hits upon the idea of filming everything as they go along in the hopes of putting together an “important” movie that will ostensibly tell the truth of what is happening and, if all goes well, will presumably sweep whatever remains of next year’s Sundance Film Festival When Jason and his friends arrive on campus, they find it virtually deserted but do come across his old girlfriend Debra (Michelle Morgan) and when she reveals that she can’t reach her family, the group decides to drive out to her parents’ home in the hopes that whatever is going on will finally be put under control by the time they arrive.

Unlike the other “Dead” films, in which the protagonists usually found themselves in one central location (a farmhouse, a shopping mall, an underground shelter) for most of the story, “Diary of the Dead” takes the form of a road movie in which our heroes drive through the night in search of help and security from the institutions that they have been raised to believe would provide them when things go sour–alas, as we have learned from both real life and Romero’s previous films, these are the things that tend to go belly-up first. (Some of the shots of chaos that we see are eerily reminiscent of the shocking footage that we saw in the immediate wake of Hurricane Katrina and when the National Guard does arrive, saving the day turns out to be fairly low on their list of priorities.) After running over a group of people that may not have been entirely zombie in nature, the innocent and religious Mary (Tatiana Maslany) shoots herself and a trip to the hospital in order to save her proves to be a nightmare in more ways than one. Likewise, further journeys to the presumably safe homes belonging to the parents of Debra and Ridley (as Debra observes early on, “You spend so much time resenting your parents but as soon as the shit hits the fan, the only place you want to go is home”) prove to be anything but soothing and heartwarming returns to the familial bosom. What little comfort and support they do receive comes from those societal outsiders who stayed behind while everyone else fled–a deaf Amish farmer and a group of African-Americans who have united into a highly efficient collective because, as their leader puts it, “For the first time, we got the power.” And as all of this continues to unfold, Jason continues to film, much to the consternation of his friends who feel that he is more concerned with getting good footage than he is in helping them to survive long enough to watch it.

The idea of seeing the entire story through the eyes of someone wielding a video camera may strike some people as more than a little familiar–between this film, “Cloverfield” and Brian De Palma’s “Redacted,” moviegoers have lately been inundated by a virtual bonfire of the verities–but instead of merely deploying the conceit as a gimmick or as a way of keeping the costs low, he utilizes it ways that are always fascinating to behold. On a formal level, the movie-within-a-movie conceit is ingenious in the way that it provides viewers with a new way of looking at a narrative than might have otherwise come across as all too familiar in the wake of such recent zombie-themed hits as “Shaun of the Dead,” “28 Days/Weeks Later” and the “Resident Evil” films. The film even figures out a way of overcoming the cinematic flaw of films of this type–the unlikeliness that one single camera could possibly capture all of the footage that we are watching–by both posing as a finished product (complete with music that, as Debra notes in voice-over, to make things seem scarier) and by allowing our heroes to acquire a second camera along the way to capture more footage to go into that finished product. The concept is so strong that it even helps explain away what might otherwise be considered to be the one weak moment of an otherwise strong film–a seemingly pointless coda that unnecessarily underlines one of the unspoken themes of the film in a needlessly blunt and in-your-face manner. In most films, such a coda would seem like an unnecessary attempt to underline the message of the film so that even the densest audiences can more or less grasp it–especially so since it comes on the heels of what would have otherwise been a powerful final shot, though one that would have served as the bleakest conclusion of a “Dead” film since the notoriously nihilistic coup de grace of the original–but in this context, it comes across as exactly the kind of embarrassingly earnest moment that a budding filmmaker might tack on to their work as the result of a lack of confidence regarding his or her ability to get the point across through more subtle methods.

From a narrative standpoint, Romero uses the film-within-a-film approach as a direct method of grappling with the societal concerns that he is exploring this time around. While his previous films have used the zombies as a way of exploring the horrors of Vietnam (“Night”), the hollowness of conspicuous materialism (“Dawn”), mindless militarism (“Day”) and the all-too-human notion of simply ignoring a problem that cannot easily be fixed on its own (“Land”), “Diary of the Dead” deals with the idea that we are now living in a world that is so obsessed with presenting an image in the media–whether it is one of the seemingly billions of blogs or viral videos on the web or news footage that has been doctored in an attempt to cover up what is really go on–that many people have essentially denied their humanity in an effort to chronicle it all. (Remember that moment in “Cloverfield” where the first reaction of the partygoers to seeing the Statue of Liberty’s head deposited in the middle of the street was to immediately start shooting photos on their phones and digital cameras?) For the most part, Romero is condemning this attitude–in the eyes of Debra, for example, Jason’s compulsion to continue filming even as it becomes apparent that everything is falling apart around them is far more ghoulish than anything done by the monsters surrounding them–but at the same time, the recognizes the impulse that Jason is operating under and as things become increasingly confused, that determination to tell the truth at all costs leads Debra to abandon her misgivings and help put the project together even when it requires including things that she would no doubt give anything to never have to see again in her lifetime.

Of course, this is all the stuff that may look good in analytical surveys of Romero’s career or in-depth screen criticism but it doesn’t exactly answer the question of how it might work for someone who just wants to see a good movie on a Saturday night. I assure you that simply on the level of sheer entertainment. “Diary of the Dead” is a blast from start to finish. As a horror movie, it is unusually effective both in the splattery extremes in which it cheerfully indulges throughout (although nothing here may top the helicopter decapitation of “Dawn of the Dead” for sheer nutty excess, it is unlikely that few gorehounds will be complaining after seeing various monsters being dispatched via such tools as heart paddles, hydrochloric acid and a well-placed scythe) and in the tension-filled sequences that Romero puts us through in order to get to those gory parts. (The long segment following our heroes in the hallways of the virtually abandoned hospital may well be the single most genuinely frightening set-piece of Romero’s entire career.) Romero also finds plenty of room for the dark humor with which he has always peppered his films–I love the way that the cheesy horror-film footage that we see early on winds up repeating itself later on in unexpected circumstances and the camcorder footage of a clown zombie in action is both hideous and hilarious. (Horror buffs should also keep their ears peeled for the voices that supply the various news reports that we hear throughout–I won’t spoil the surprise but the end credits do reveal them to be a virtual who’s-who? of genre favorites.) Best of all, longtime Romero fans will be amused to discover how personal and autobiographical this film is in many ways–beyond the obvious in-joke references to the silliness of fast-moving undead creatures and “the underlying thread of social satire,” the journey that Jason and Debra embark upon roughly parallels Romero’s entire career from his humble beginnings in the woods shooting a zombie movie with some friends to the schisms that develop as a result of that film to his fears of never being allowed to do anything else for the rest of his life other than make zombie movies.

“Diary of the Dead” is not just the first truly great film of 2008, it is easily the finest and most consistent work that Romero has given us as a filmmaker since “Dawn of the Dead” nearly three decades ago. (This statement, by the way, comes from someone who hugely admired both the subsequent gut-crunchers “Day of the Dead” and “Land of the Dead” as well as such non-zombie efforts as “Monkey Shines” and the sadly underrated “Bruiser”) From start to finish, this is a perfect example of a film made by someone who, not content to simply rest on his Laurels, has tackled his material with the consummate skill of a veteran director at the peak of his powers as well as the enthusiasm of a newcomer eager to take risks at every turn. The result is a truly great American horror film, a work that so effortlessly blends gripping storytelling and incisive social commentary with amazingly effective elements of gruesome terror that I am not at all surprised to see that it is currently being featured in the pages of both “Film Comment” and “Fangoria.”

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16408&reviewer=389
originally posted: 02/15/08 00:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Fantastic Fest 2007 For more in the Fantastic Fest 2007 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2008 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

11/05/10 Josie Cotton is a goddess It might be time to laid the franchise to rest 3 stars
1/24/10 Chad Dillon Cooper Should have beat the zombies over the head with the message instead of the filmgoer. 2 stars
1/01/10 art THE ONLY GOOD ZOMBIE FLICK IS 1932's white z0mbie, 1 stars
5/05/09 sandy freeman wow. SO bad! horrible acting, horrible dialogue. disappointment. 1 stars
12/20/08 Craig D. Not as good as Romero's other Dead movies, but it still blows away everything else. 4 stars
7/22/08 Ivana Mann Romero is becoming a bargain-basement narcissist. Transparently pretentious garbage! 1 stars
7/21/08 km fucking awful, this movie is one of the worst films ever made and just a piece of shit. 1 stars
6/29/08 mr.mike Starts well and grows tiresome. That review above was longer than "War and Peace." 4 stars
6/06/08 Matt Not very scary. The characters never even seemed afraid. Not very impressive, but still fun 3 stars
4/27/08 Jayme Isaacs Good Movie A George A Romero Classic 4 stars
4/15/08 Carlos R. Guzman Reflex what I've learnt in pol.ideology class; Below Night/Dawn but above "Land" 5 stars
3/03/08 Vince Really liked it. The social commentary is almost "dead" on 5 stars
2/17/08 blyskalp Action is good 4 stars
2/17/08 debdahlin maybe I've just seen too many zombie movies lately 2 stars
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  15-Feb-2008 (R)
  DVD: 20-May-2008



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