Friday, February 15, 2008

In Theaters: Diary of the Dead

Image from the Internet Movie Poster Awards, at IMPAwards.com
Through my elite Hollywood connections (i.e. going to a comics shop and seeing they were giving out passes), I was able to catch DIARY OF THE DEAD a whopping day before its limited release, which as you read this should have already started. So, as brief as my feeling of exclusivity has been, I’m still glad to tell you that George A. Romero’s latest entry in his genre-defining series of zombie films is great fun, and pretty much a must see for anyone who isn’t completely sick of shambling undead by this point. It has the misfortune of coming on the heels of CLOVERFIELD, as like that film it covers a horror-movie event from the perspective of some average Joes with a camera, but it actually does more with the premise and sets itself apart as a weird, sprawling journey through a world where the laws of life and death have very suddenly changed.

The film presents itself as a documentary (itself titled “The Death of Death”) being shot by Jason Creed (Joshua Close), a student filmmaker who is actually out in the woods shooting a horror film for his thesis. He and his friends start hearing news reports of the dead coming to life and attacking people, and as it becomes clearer that it’s not a hoax and that this is kind of widespread, they hop in a Winnebago in hopes of finding their loved ones and maybe some safety from an increasing epidemic. Jason decides to keep filming, much to the consternation of his girlfriend Debra (Michelle Morgan), but he feels compelled to record what’s happening in the hope that it might help somebody.

For those who suffered from motion sickness (or just plain irritation) due to the shaky camera work of CLOVERFIELD, I can say that this is not nearly as big a problem here- the camera is handheld, but by someone who knows what he’s doing for the most part, and there are some shaky moments but it’s not excessive. The picture quality is also better than you’d expect (perhaps justifiably) and the gang also find a second camera at one point, allowing for reverse angles and the like. There’s even an incidental score, though there is an explanation for it.

The film struggles to find a tone in its early stages, caught between deliberate camp and realistic horror, but around the time our characters encounter a deaf, dynamite-wielding Amish farmer, the film finds an odd kind of balance. It’s the kind of wild comic book tone that you may remember from DAWN OF THE DEAD, and later films to a lesser extent, and it helps that both the humor and the scares work on their own. (There’s a sequence in a warehouse that is beautifully cut together.)

What really does stand out after a while is how unpredictable the picture is. At first, of course, it has to go through the standard exposition of things we already know: there are zombies, they eat people, their bite turns into a zombie, you need to shoot them in the head to kill them. But the story, which ultimately has a very episodic structure, frequently goes in unexpected and surprising directions. A lot of this applies to the characters as well; at the start this looks like it’ll be your classic Dead Teenager Movie, and some of the characters stand out as obviously there to be cannon fodder, but Romero ultimately likes his cast too much to be that obvious, and though there are casualties, you can never be really sure of what will happen to whom. The performances are generally strong, with Scott Wentworth doing a good turn as a cynical film professor. The beautiful, near-ethereal Michelle Morgan is also memorable.

Romero’s zombie films have all had some element of social commentary, and this is no different. It’s mostly about the proliferation of media in the modern age and how everything anyone does is recorded and made available to the public, for good and ill. Jason’s need to film everything is commented on as a kind of detachment, a way of shielding himself from the horror. Romero is not exactly subtle about this, but of course he’s rarely been subtle about anything. Some of the dialogue along these lines, especially in a couple of interstitial montages, is very clunky, but some interesting points are made, and the film also works in references to racial issues, class issues, 9/11 and the War on Terror, and other neat stuff.

It was, needless to say, a privilege to see the film when I did and with a good crowd of zombie fans, but the picture itself is no slouch. It’s consistently entertaining, alternates nicely between horrific and funny, throws on a good amount of gore (though some of it is obviously being saved for the inevitable unrated DVD), and again challenges the limits and conventions of a well-worn genre. Romero continues to do fascinating work with a limited premise, and with approximately two to four million dollars he’s put together quite the epic. Grim fare though it may be, this film left me with a surprisingly good feeling.

Written and Directed by George A. Romero

Grade: A-

2 comments:

Joseph B. said...

What I don't understand is why this thing is being marketed like an art house film. It opened on one screen here in DFW, at the Angelika. Why isn't this thing opening nationwide? It's a zombie movie... it's a gory zombie movie.. and its a gory George Romero zombie movie. It doesn't add up.

Evan Waters said...

I do not pretend to know what the Weinstein Company is thinking. Nobody can. Their ways are mysterious.