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Arts & Culture

George A. Romero's 'Diary of the Dead'

"Diary of the Dead"
"Diary of the Dead"

Let me be upfront about this – I love zombie movies. I don’t know what it is about the lumbering undead that I find so endearing but they definitely charm me. And George A. Romero is THE master of zombie horror, having essentially created the genre with his 1968 black and white film, “Night of the Living Dead.” There were some zombies before Romero but he defined them as we know them today, and anyone who saw him at his panel at last year's Comic-Con should be convinced of his master status in the horror genre.

This year, the 67-year-old Romero delivers his fifth zombie film, “Diary of the Dead” (opening February 15 exclusively at the AMC Palm Promenade Theaters) so run, don’t “shamble,” over to catch the undead’s latest uprising.

The great thing about Romero’s zombies films is that you can enjoy them in any of a number of ways. If you just want a zombie gorefest, he delivers a bloody thrill ride of horror fun. But his films can also be appreciated as truly independent filmmaking in which Romero has complete control of everything; his films serve up primers on how to make a film on little or no money outside Hollywood. And finally, if you want something a little meatier, you can always find social commentary mixed in with all the blood and gore. Romero’s latest, “Diary of the Dead,” satisfies on all three levels.

As proof, let me focus for a moment on the opening scene of "Diary of the Dead." It begins with a TV news cameraman placing his camera on a tripod (which is a bit like giving the bird to all those shakycam films that think bad handheld camerawork is more realistic), and then even dusting off the lens. He’s filming a TV reporter on the scene of a double murder and suicide. When an ambulance pulls up, he tells them to move because they are ruining his shot (an early jab at how the media manipulates even the simplest of things). As the woman reporter begins to deliver her report on-camera, we hear the cameraman exclaim that the dead bodies are moving. But we can’t see anything because the reporter (center framed) is blocking our view. I felt myself leaning to one side to try and see around her. Romero is denying us a good view of the action, which has the effect of pulling us in more. Then he delivers some nice gore as the dead bodies rise up and begin snacking on the startled humans. In just these opening minutes, Romero reveals more filmmaking smarts than most horror films display in two hours. He clearly defines the first person point of view the film will take; he reveals sly humor in his shot choices; he delivers the gore; he hints at the theme of media manipulation; and he creates a scene that he can go back to later in a re-edited form to show how “the truth” can easily be manipulated. All that in about five minutes. That’s efficient filmmaking.

For “Diary of the Dead,” Romero returns to the very first night of the zombie uprising to get a different perspective on events than that of “Night of the Living Dead.“ This time out, Romero focuses on Jason Creed (Josh Close) and his small crew of college filmmakers. They're making a no-budget mummy horror film out in the Pennsylvania woods. Jason sounds like a pretentious first-time filmmaker as he lectures his cast and crew about filmmaking technique. He acts as if he were the only one taking this project seriously. He complains about the make up being shoddy, and his actor not shambling properly as one of the undead. As they try to make what we see as a silly horror film Romero makes fun of the horror conventions they are striving so seriously to attain. Romero pokes gentle fun at Jason, maybe because he sees a little of himself from back in the 60s in this struggling filmmaker. (One of the students, Eliot, wears big glasses like the ones Romero is famous for, so again I think Romero is poking fun at himself a bit.)

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While shooting their film, the students hear news that the dead are coming back to life. This prompts the lead actor to flee to his parents’ mansion as the rest hit the road in a Winnebago. It’s not long before they meet up with some reanimated corpses that the driver, Mary (Tatiana Maslany) ends up mowing down. But since this is day one of the zombie uprising, Mary and a couple of the others aren’t sure that the people she killed were already dead. This creates a moral dilemma for Mary.

Romero follows the group as they try to make it to the home of Jason’s girlfriend’s parents. His girlfriend Debby (Michelle Morgan) wants to make sure her folks are okay. Along the way, the group encounters an eerily deserted hospital; a deaf mute Amish man who makes unique use of a scythe; a group of black militants who have taken over a city because whitey left; and some renegade national guards. The longer they are on the road, the more concerned they become that this is the beginning of the end of their world as they know it.

Using Jason’s camera, a cell phone camera and a third camera they pick up along the way, Romero documents the events. This first person point of view was made famous in “The Blair Witch Project“ (also about student filmmakers) and used more recently in “Cloverfield.” But unlike “Cloverfield,” where the battery never dies and the camera (although shaky) always manages to capture everything we need to see, Romero has fun denying us information. At one point the battery dies as they are being attacked and then Jason must plug into a wall socket at the hospital to recharge. As he’s waiting he hears screams and moves to the end of his power cable but cannot see outside the door. He can only hear screams, which means that neither Jason nor the audience knows what’s going on. This is a clever way of addressing the reality of the situation -- batteries dying -- and using it to be both funny and to create suspense.

In addition, “Diary of the Dead“ makes the documenting of these seemingly apocalyptic events more credible than in “Cloverfield“ because it directly addresses why someone would be so obsessed with filming everything. Jason is a product of the YouTube generation, and has pretenses of being a serious filmmaker in search of the truth. When he posts a video, it gets 72,000 hits in a matter of minutes. That fuels his desire to keep shooting. When Jason sees how the mainstream media is manipulating information, suggesting that everything is a hoax or that things are not as bad as they seem, that too drives him on. Plus we see how filming the horrors allows Jason to distance himself from the terrifying events. But Romero isn’t so simplistic as to say that Jason is trustworthy and a better source of information than the mainstream media. Romero clearly acknowledges that the mainstream media is manipulating information but we know that and there's a skepticism about what they feed us. But in the unfiltered world of the blogosphere, opinion often masquerades as fact yet people seem to question less of what they find on the Internet. So even though we become engaged in the fate of these young characters, Romero suggests that maybe we should distrust them and their points of view as well. Debby, in a voiceover introduction to what becomes Jason’s film “The Death of Death,” she says that in finishing Jason's film she has added music for effect hoping to scare you because she wants to scare you. She wants to manipulate the audience as much as the mainstream media.

Debby raises the issue of what happens to us when we see something horrible. Her conclusion is that if you view it through a lens you become immune, it no longer affects you. You stop to look, to record but not to help. That's an idea pondered in the 60s film “Medium Cool,” about a TV cameraman. So in “Diary of the Dead,“ Jason films his friend being attacked and doesn't think to help. In the end Debby decides that cameras and guns are too easy to use, yet she too will be seduced by the camera.

Romero also gets in a few digs in the layered audio tracks that include news reports and radio broadcasts. Romero got friends like Simon Pegg, Quentin Tarantino, Wes Craven, Guillermo Del Toro and Stephen King to make cameo vocal appearance on these audio tracks. There’s a crazy religious broadcast offering little hope in the face of this Armageddon. Then political hot button issues are given a spin as Del Toro points out that the heated issue of crossing the physical border between Mexico and the U.S. pales in comparison to the new concerns of crossing the border between life and death.

Now I enjoy the way Romero brings in social commentary but if you’re not interested in that the film delivers a horror fun ride that can be enjoyed with your brain turned off. The zombies prove to be a hungry lot, ripping flesh and spilling internal organs with sloth-like enthusiasm. The humans end up resorting to some unique weapons to fight back, ranging from a defibrillator that pops a zombie’s eyes out to less high tech weapons as a bow and arrow and a scythe. Romero delivers on the gore but keeps the shots a bit more from a distance than usual because his first person shooters don’t want to do more than zoom in on the action. Romero still aims for the head and hits his mark. The final scene, of some rednecks using zombies for target practice, prompt Debby to ask if maybe humans have lost their humanity. Romero, like the best horror filmmakers, knows that the scariest things do not come from the outside. It's not monsters or zombies or serial killers that are really scary. What scary is what lurks within us, what individuals are capable of doing. The final image of a zombie suggests more humanity in the undead creature than the drunk rednecks, and that's a theme played out more fully in “Day of the Dead” (lovable zombie Bub) and “Land of the Dead.”

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Now I will admit that “Diary of the Dead” is not perfect. Romero's films are professional but lack a Hollywood polish. His actors are often a bit stiff.

“Diary“ is no exception. Characters like the displaced British professor seem to exist to spout necessary commentary. And Jason’s Texas actress is mostly there for window dressing and for a pay off about women in distress falling and having their clothes torn off for a gratuitous boob shot. But the thing that redeems Romero is his lack of pretense. He wholeheartedly accepts that he’s working within the horror genre and understands the need to deliver certain things (gore, scares, a few laughs). His films have more on their mind than most films in the horror genre, but those ideas are just there if you want to find them. The problems with “Diary of the Dead“ are minor considering how much fun and clever filmmaking it delivers.

“Diary of the Dead“ (rated R for strong horror violence and gore, and pervasive language) places the latest zombie tale in the context of a post-9/11 and post-Katrina America. The chaos, fear, lack of government help and role of the media all reflect what America has gone through since Romero first reanimated the dead in 1968. At the press screening I attended, the film actually broke and melted in the projector during the end credits, which seemed an absolutely perfect way to end a film about the possible end of civilization. Too bad every screening can't end that way. I would also like to conclude by saying that it’s a sad state of affairs when a new George A. Romero zombie picture opens in only one area theater and mindless Hollywood fodder like “Jumper“ opens wide. Romero, who represents true independent filmmaking and a genuine maverick spirit, deserves better.

“Diary of the Dead” is bloody fun, bloody smart and just plain bloody good. Zombies rule and so does George A. Romero. And just a note, Romero plays the cop in the news footage that gets re-edited, and this time out Toronto stood in for his hometown of Pittsburgh (just as Toronto stood in for John Waters' Baltimore in the new “Hairspray“).