I saw George Romero’s new movie DIARY OF THE DEAD. It’s basically “NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD meets BLAIR WITCH PROJECT” or “CLOVERFIELD with zombies” or “CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST – cannibal + zombies but not ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST.” It’s not a sequel to the living dead movies but kind of a do-over with the zombie plague beginning in the present day and depicted in documentary form. Some film students are working on a crappy mummy movie (come on George, this is 2008, only Rob Cohen makes mummy movies) when they start hearing news about the dead coming back to life, and their director is compelled to keep filming. We’re told at the beginning of the movie that his footage was edited by another character along with clips they downloaded from youtube, some news and security cam footage. Also she admits that she added music. And, I’m afraid, she narrates it.
I feel bad saying this but since nobody is reading this and it’s only a diary I will come out and say it: this movie isn’t very good. I enjoyed watching it and will list many of the good things about it right here on these pages, in the interest of balance. And in case Harry reads this because he got real mad at Quint for not liking it and I pretty much agree with everything in Quint’s review. But in my deepest, most personal secret opinion this is a failed experiment for old George.
This is Romero back doing low budget independent movies, but it looks real nice. Especially in the parts that show the larger world outside of the documentary, the clips from the news and youtube where there is total chaos going on, cars crashing into each other, zombies hanging on nooses from freeway overpasses, and various madness. In NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD the characters were constantly trying to listen to news reports to get some kind of information about what’s going on. In DIARY we see news reports (sometimes edited to hide the truth), we hear talk radio, CBs, all kinds of communication. All those different fuzzy broadcasts add a realistic texture to the movie and I think Romero is right that if something like this were to happen now (God forbid, because I bet it would be a huge pain the ass) the young people would in fact be the ones spreading information about what’s going on. Because they have all their god damn cell phones and little handheld video games and all that stupid shit they always play with, and they spell worse than me because they write in some kind of moronic gibberish from writing on phones and they also wear their pants too tight now and wear those white belts and they look almost as stupid as their older brothers did wearing those giant clown pants.
In CLOVERFIELD you had to kind of accept that they would keep filming for some reason, in this one it’s actually a major theme and a point of contention for the characters. The other characters kind of think this guy is crazy, even an asshole, for having to tape everything. They get mad and sarcastically offer to re-enact things that happened off camera because “it didn’t really happen if it was off camera, did it?” In one scene they’re exploring a dangerous zombified hospital and he stays behind because his battery is dead and he needs to plug into the wall. Dude, that’s when you know you have a problem.
So for Romero the documentary format is not just a gimmick, he’s trying to say something. And I like that. The problem is that there is no subtlety involved. This movie is corny and preachy even for Romero. In his best movies he’s willing to let the points come across in the story, in this one he has somebody narrating them, and that’s just hard to take. The last shot of the movie is a really disturbing and powerful image, and if it was left to speak for itself I think people would be able to find a good interpretation of it. Instead we hear this character narrating about her disappointment in humanity, making a point that is earned in the other Dead movies, but not in this one. And even if he wasn’t hammering it too hard, any movie that has somebody repeatedly narrating about “bloggers” and “uploading” and even “hackers” is gonna make me squirm.
(You know, even in real documentaries I prefer no narration. More than anything this movie proves that film schools should teach about the Maysles Brothers in the first semester in case zombie holocaust breaks out before they get to that shit.)
Here’s an example of the kind of thing that bothered me. There’s a scene late in the movie where, by weird coincidence, the scene we saw them filming for their mummy movie is sort of re-enacted. Only this time the mummy is a real zombie chasing the same girl for real. You think a ha, clever, until the girl actually says something like “This is just like in your stupid mummy movie!” Come on George. I guess you’re making this for the brain damaged cell phone generation, but what about me? Can you make a version where I don’t have to be talked down to like that?
Also, these characters don’t look like real people, they look like movie characters. One is a blonde model type with cleavage, which is intentional because she’s the star of their movie. (wow, bout time somebody stuck it to the blond bimbos who starred in horror movies 25 years ago. Way to hit ’em where it hurts, George.) But the others don’t look like regular people either and the documentary format just emphasizes their phoniness. They’re mostly college students but for variety they happen to have their professor with them, and he’s a ridiculously cliched prick whose character is mostly just that he has an accent (to show he’s a snob) and that he swigs from a flask all the time (because he feels guilty for not teaching them about the Maysles Brothers). Fortunately later he gets a bow and arrow so he mostly shuts up and shoots arrows, then all the sudden he seems more worthwhile. Bows and arrows have made a comeback between THE HOST, RAMBO and this. Way to go bows and arrows, it’s been a long time coming.
The sad thing is that there are some much more interesting characters in the movie, they just don’t appear for very long. I don’t want to go into too much specifics because somebody might steal my diary and read it and the movie would be spoiled and they would deserve it for reading my private review of this movie however I believe the Lord would ask that I still not give it away. Leviticus, page 3, lower right corner. So I will just say that there is an Amish character who is great, but only appears in the movie briefly. And one of the best parts of the movie is when they come across some “looters” who have a great set-up in a warehouse, a much more organized operation than we’ve seen in previous Dead movies. Their leader has a strong presence and you kind of wish you could just follow them and find out what happens to them instead of the college kids.
I’m not sure how other people will react to this movie. I have been called a moron more than once for liking LAND OF THE DEAD. So if my standards are low for liking that one, and this new one didn’t cut it, it must be pretty bad, right? On the other hand I’ve seen so many rave reviews and many of them mentioned that thank God it was way better than LAND OF THE DEAD. So your mileage may vary. Some restrictions apply.
To try to figure out the score here I went back and watched LAND again. I guess now that I’ve seen it a few times and now that it’s not a fresh bite of Romero zombies after a decades long drought it’s easier to see the flaws. On DVD the digital stuff is way more noticeable than it was on that first viewing, and with the stylized landscapes they show sometimes it just has a less raw, more artificial look than the others in the series. And as funny as Dennis Hopper is in parts of it, he is clearly Dennis Hopper. It feels more like a Hollywood movie than the other ones do. And one thing that really stuck out more than it used to for me was how many of the themes have to be underlined by the characters in the dialogue.
I think the problem there stems back to DAWN OF THE DEAD. Romero thought the line about why the zombies came to the mall was too obvious. (I think it’s fine.) He recently told the Fangoria horror magazine that he thought “I may have hammered the point home too obviously” so in trying to make up for that in DAY OF THE DEAD “I went the other way and was too subtle with my themes of paranoia and mistrust.” So I guess now he’s swinging the other way and making these movies less subtle than ever. Just to be safe.
To me it was a much bigger problem in DIARY. It’s bad enough when the dialogue is too obvious but when the person is actually narrating, directly talking to the audience, it goes into corniness overdrive.
And LAND added so many new details to the world. The organized crews of soldiers going out scavenging. The use of fireworks to distract the zombies (something that works literally and as symbolism). The rich people who’ve been able to be so sheltered they just scream when zombies show up. And I know alot of people hate it, but I like that Romero actually moved forward with the story of the zombies. He didn’t just repeat himself, he added this element of the zombies beginning to learn even more than they did in DAY OF THE DEAD. Learning not to be distracted by the pretty lights in the air, instead following the pretty lights on the Fiddler’s Green tower. Some of them are real characters with their own subplot. Okay, I could do without Tom Savini doing fight moves in his zombie cameo, but most of it works for me.
Since DIARY is skipping back to the beginning, there’s not as much progress. It’s mostly just variations on what Romero’s done before, and not shown in much detail. I loved seeing how organized the guys in the warehouse were, but whenever something like that comes up the story just gives you a glimpse and then moves on.
Maybe part of the problem is that I don’t really want to see the beginning again. How many fucking beginnings do we need? He began it perfectly in 1968. One of the reasons DAWN and DAY are so great is because they begin and end in that world of chaos. There’s no status quo at the beginning or the end.
But also when you just look at the basic elements of the movie I don’t think it delivers the way the best Romero movies do. For example, I don’t like the main characters very much. I don’t even hate them like I do Rhodes in DAY OF THE DEAD. They’re pretty forgettable. Except for the Amish dude. And every flaw in their characters or every fake thing they do is amplified by the “diary” gimmick. For example, the scene where the computer expert (you will recognize him, because he has glasses) types a few keys in a lap top to tap into the security cameras so they can get some alternate angles for their documentary – that shit would be laughable in LAND OF THE DEAD, but it’s double-laughable when it’s shot like a documentary and your brain is trying to play along with the idea of it being reality. I’m not even sure what Romero is trying to pull here exactly because he even said in that Fangoria article that he wasn’t trying for realism. “My style is arch and theatrical, where BLAIR WITCH went for ultra-realism. I’m trying to maintain the artifice and make potent comments about the observer–while still supplying lots of nasty zombie stuff.” Okay, sounds good. I don’t get it though.
You know what? Here’s what it is. If you watch NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, DAWN OF THE DEAD or DAY OF THE DEAD, you don’t even have to get any meaning out of them. They are still some of the most kickass horror movies you’ve ever seen. And then behind all the mechanics of surviving disaster, of creative ghoul mayhem and spectacular special effects, there are all these interesting things being communicated about human nature and about the world and what not. If you’re interested.
In this movie you get a fun horror movie, but not as kickass as those other three by any stretch of the imagination. And covering some pretty similar territory. And then you get the commentary too, but it’s poking through the horror movie surface in about ten or fifteen different spots, reaching out trying to nudge you. So the balance is completely off. And some of it’s material that has been covered in alot of other movies and that I kind of would rather not hear about anymore, especially in the form of a fake student film. Even if there are zombies.
In fact, I must admit, I’m even kind of sick of hearing about zombies. Yes, they are great. Shut the fuck up about them, nerds. Let’s keep it a silent thing, never said out loud. Don’t ever talk to me about zombie this and zombie that. Just look at me, nod, I will nod back. Everything is understood. Also, Romero should be the only one allowed to make zombie movies for the next ten years. Otherwise we’re on a moratorium here fellas. Thank you for your cooperation.
So those are some pretty fundamental problems that some people won’t be able to get past. I mean, if you had a problem with LAND OF THE DEAD I can’t see being more forgiving of this. But if you did like LAND OF THE DEAD like I did I think this is at least worth checking out, if you can lower your expectations. There is plenty of good zombie fun, lots of clever zombie mutilations and some cool new twists on how people deal with them. There are a few too many digital head shots for my tastes (I want real fake blood) but for the most part the effects are good, the zombies look cool and really do seem inhuman. That’s is one thing Romero will never forget how to do. The guy works well with ghouls.
I hate to say it diary. Romero is one of my favorite directors. I’m so glad that he’s making independent movies again, and zombie movies. But the truth is, I enjoyed it, but I don’t think it’s very good. And I really wanted it to be good. I think people are yearning to be blown away by a new Romero masterpiece. BUT DO WE REALLY DESERVE ONE?
well, gotta go record myself reading this on my cell cam so I can upload it on youtube for all the bloggers and hackers to download for their blogs
Originally posted at Ain’t-It-Cool-News: http://www.aintitcool.com/node/35521