Thursday, August 21, 2008

Movie Review – George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead (2007)

George Romero’s triumphant return to the horror genre that he created is truthfully –only slightly triumphant. After all of the anticipation, and all of the whinging on my part that Ohio had only one theatrical showing of Diary of the Dead (in Columbus – 2 hours away!) I finally secured a copy on DVD and sat down to watch it with some popcorn, the lights out, and a giddy feeling in my stomach. After viewing it, I’ve got to say I was a bit underwhelmed.

The movie is told in the cineme verite style of The Blair Witch Project, or Cloverfield and is told from the point of view of several college film students. While out in the woods filming a low budget Mummy movie, they hear a radio report of strange attacks. The soon find themselves in the midst of the zombie apocalypse and the film is related as they see it through their own cameras.

In terms of the behind the camera point of view, Romero does a great job of making it much more polished and herky-jerky than the nausea-fests Blair Witch and Cloverfield represented, but it lacks the realism that the prior two films had and excelled at. At several points in the film – especially when they understand that they are truly being attacked by the living dead, they stand by as zombies approach, rolling the film.

From an acting standpoint, and as expected, most of the actors and actresses were pretty, young, and forgettable. A quick perusal of IMDB shows that none of them have any sort of extensive acting resumes - - and their inexperience shows through. The acting was stilted and most of their lines were delivered poorly. The only stand outs were the character of Debra Moynihan, as played by Michelle Morgan, and the alcoholic, bitter, nihilistic film professor (Scott Wentworth). Debra plays the ex-girlfriend of the protagonist and, although she plays the character as overly bitchy and angry, she far surpasses her peers in acting ability and I expect to see great things from her.

So – what did Romero do well? Well, despite my apparent disdain for the movie – it was still a Romero zombie film. And nobody – and I mean nobody – does zombies as well as George does. Visually, there were some great things here. The opening scene, where a news crew rolls up on a fatal domestic, is brilliant. The terror is palpable as the deceased combatants tear their way out of their body bags and attack the EMT’s and the news crew itself. Additionally, there were some great zombie killings. As they roll through Pittsburgh, the main characters run into a group of African-Americans who’ve fortified and dug in. There’s some great suspense as one of the survivors' now undead members stalks all in an abandoned industrial complex. And, when he is finally cornered, he’s killed with acid and I’ve got to say it was one of the best effects of the movie.

Romero also has a knack for creating memorable, almost iconic characters. In Night of the Living Dead, there was Ben – a black man in post Civil rights, rural Pennsylvania protecting himself and others; in Dawn, you had Peter. In Day of the Dead, you had the awesomeness that was Captain Rhodes; and in Land of the Dead, you had Charlie – the mentally disabled, burn-scarred Alvin York of Romero’s post-apocalyptic world. What makes these characters great is that they are a juxtaposed mingling of flaws and nobility. They are characters who have depths that are only hinted at. Romero follows through in this film with the Professor’s character, but the true icon from this movie is the deaf, Amish farmer and bad-ass – Joshua. I won’t ruin it for you, but I will say that scythes rock!

Also – the later scenes at a mansion they end up at are great; especially the pool scene. Again, it’s something you’ll need to see, but it’s great. There is an over-reliance on computer animation in this film, just like in Land of the Dead, but I was disappointed to see it. Yes, Doctor Z. gets that it’s cheaper to do CGI head shots; but they’re obviously fake and computer generated. There’s a difference between CGI and a good, well placed blood squib. Call me a purist or old school, but I like to see some real effects and splatter… not something plugged in as an afterthought in post-production.

As for Romero’s trademark social commentary – it’s here, but it’s not as resonant as it was in prior living dead films. Romero spends the movie commenting on the “media”-fication of our society and our reliance on new technology and the globalization it’s brought. It’s an indictment on a world filled with cell phones, and YouTube, and 24 hour media coverage. And I get the sense he’s also condemning Gen Y’s reliance on the same. He spends the movie criticizing his young, selfish filmmaker characters – but it rings untrue and, honestly, sort of hypocritical. The characters are doing the same thing he did back in 1968 in Evansville PA. And I guaran-damn-tee that, if the zombies rose up then, he’d have spent what little time he had filming the fall of humanity.

So – what’s Doctor Z’s overall appraisal of Diary of the Dead? It was still a zombie flick, and it was done by the father of the genre. Despite its flaws, it was still compelling and moved along at a good pace. The effects were good, the camera work was good, and the zombies were out-fucking-standing. All of this – however – was marred by the bad acting and the characters themselves. I truthfully didn’t care about them like I did past Romero characters. They were unlikable archetypes. But, despite that, it’s still good escapist fun.

My hope was that, when George was allowed to go back to his roots and do some guerilla filmmaking, he’d turn out something visceral and powerful. I have to say I was disappointed. In fact, I’d have to go out on a limb and say that I liked Land of the Dead better. Which says a lot, I think. It’s still a must see, and it’s still got some awesome zombie action, but it’s definitely in the bottom of my ranking as far as Romero’s Holy Quintet goes. Fortunately, he will have the chance to redeem himself. Word is that he will begin filming of Diary of the Dead 2 in September. We’ll have to see. So – as a zombie fan and a lover of all things Romero – I recommend Diary of the Dead.

Let me put it this way, even Romero’s worst zombie film is a hundred times better than most of the other low budget, low rent crap out there that passes as zombie films today. Every modern zombie filmmaker needs to bend a knee and kiss Romero’s ring. So; see it, own it, add it to the collection – just don’t expect it to be more than it is…

Doctor Zombie’s Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 Chomped Brains


Randal Graves said...

I'm with you - it's Romero so I'll see it. I haven't yet, but look if zombies or [insert monster here] are coming after you, only the most nihilist fucker is going to continue filming and not run the hell away. That ain't realistic. :)

Dr. Zombie said...

I hear what you're screaming brother... although I still think it'd be cool as hell to film until the zombie's within ten feet or so. I mean, yeah, it's a ombie and he'll eat you... but it's a zombie. How cool would that be?

Is it bad that the hardest thing for me to do when the Zombie apocalypse comes is to pretend I'm NOT excited?!?

I have high hopes for Diary 2, so let's hope George doesn't disappoint.