Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Diary of the Dead (2007)

It was about this time that Bob wished he
had private health insurance

A lot of people complained about the ham-fisted political subtext of Land of the Dead, but anyone who thought the social commentary of Romero's films was ever subtle is kidding themselves. The theme of race relations in Night of the Living Dead is pretty tenuous since it was cast colourblind. It doesn't take much to pick up on the symbolism of zombies wandering around in a shopping mall in Dawn of the Dead (best horror film of all time), but even then Romero had the characters spell it out for us. The Reagan-era anti-intellectualism addressed in Day of the Dead is blunted by making the soldiers a bunch of insane, bloodthirsty assholes. Monkey Shines shows that all monkeys are all murderous savages who should be exterminated rather than taught how to smoke cigars and roller skate. However, all these films are masterworks of subtlety compared to Diary of the Dead.

Diary uses that first-person technique popularised by The Blair Witch Project, so you've got to have a reason for people to be wandering around with a camera. Consequently, the film starts with a bunch of students heading out into the woods to make a film about the flesh eating undead. In Romero's films nobody has ever heard of a zombie before so they've gotta use a mummy instead. This opportunity is used to make a few meta-textual observations about women in horror films that I'm sure nobody has ever done in the history of cinema. Eventually the zombies show up, so the kids pile into their van and the rest of the film documents their exploits as they travel cross-country to find their respective families and eventually just a safe place to hide.

This brings up the first problem with the film, in that the cast are a bunch of interchangeable college students. They all conform to a bunch of student archetypes of course and there's also an alcoholic film professor, but the less said about him the better. Occasionally a more interesting character would flit around in the periphery, but they would disappear quickly. The best character is a mute Amish named Samuel, and he's only in the film for a few minutes (spoiler). His was the only only death I cared about because I knew that with him departed any interest I had in the film's characters would evaporate. This was one of the most disappointing things about the film, as I could always rely on Romero's films to have real, adult characters and somewhat believable dialog. This is what separates Romero's movies from all the pretenders where the characters are all teenagers who make glib wisecracks after dispatching the reanimated corpse of their best friend.

It's easy to compare this film to [REC] or Cloverfield, but where those films used the first-person technique as a gimmick, Diary of the Dead uses it to say something about our media-obsessed culture, the way the camera lens isolates us from the subject etc. You probably won't be barfing up your popcorn watching this film either, because the camera is a lot more controlled and artfully framed than in Cloverfield (even if it makes the whole first-person thing a little harder to swallow). Using this technique places a burden on the filmmaker to explain why there's some jerk going everywhere pointing a camera at a disaster instead of helping. You can just make the characters unlikable, self-absorbed assholes (like in Cloverfield), or you can make one character the self-appointed "voice of truth", who must document these events because big media can't be trusted etc.

So far it not startlingly original but it's workable, not too bad. But unfortunately Romero takes the extra step of having the film edited like a particularly ham-handed documentary, with an added musical score, additional footage acquired from youtube, security cameras etc. He goes to great lengths to explain how the footage is acquired and edited together. Every so often we will take a break from the action and one of the characters will just sit there and narrate all of the themes to the audience like we are as dumb as the characters in the film. At one point someone actually says "It was us versus us, but now it's us versus them, but they are us". Sometimes I get the impression that Romero is using this film to pander to the audience (the "youtube generation") and at the same time is pretty contemptuous of them.

Also, the film is chock full of digital effects. I understand that it lets you shoot the film a lot quicker when you can tweak all of the effects in post-production, but it doesn't help when they are pretty cheap looking. There's a lot of digital headshots, which I hate. Personally I think the visual impact of a good old-fashioned spray of stage blood is worth the extra laundry at the end of the day. I miss Tom Savini.

I couldn't be happier that Romero is back doing independent films again, but I'd have to say this is the worst of the [Blank] of the Dead movies. Apparently he is currently filming a sequel that follows some of the minor characters as this film. I really hope that includes Samuel. I've got my fingers crossed that he does a bit better the next time around.

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