Saturday, February 16, 2008

Dead Wrong

I was frantically surfing both the web and the net this morning, looking to see if any bloggers had uploaded any e-formation on George A. Romero newest film, Diary of the Dead. I looked on MySpace and YouTube; I scanned through postings on message boards, and Googled myself purple trying to find anyone out there willing to tell the truth. What I found were lies – people were already trying to cover things up and make believe everything was okay. But things may never be okay again, because George’s newest zombie movie is a catastrophic failure.

It’s no secret that Romero, a longtime Godfather figure to horror fans and independent filmmakers alike, has always struggled to get his movies made. He’s lost dream projects at the 11th hour when funding had fallen through, he’s had films sit on the shelf, unseen for years while studios negotiate legal and marketing minefields, he’s even seen his first, and arguably most famous film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead forced to exist in a public domain vacuum where even he had no legal control over it’s distribution. As a result, George has a special place in the hearts of genre fans. That love has us turning a blind eye to the disappointments (The Dark Half and Monkey Shines amble into view…) and perhaps over-praising efforts like his previous film, Land of the Dead (2005). Land had been his first zombie film since 1985’s Day of the Dead – a film whose initial, beautifully ambitious screenplay had to be scuttled at the last minute due to a savage budget cut – and if its slick photography and CGI splatter placed it aesthetically apart from the original trilogy of Night, Dawn and Day, Land was a reasonably entertaining ride. Romero’s secret has been having not just the ability to scare, but also to back up those scares with some pretty astute socio-political commentary. Dawn’s mall walking zombies were a perfect visual metaphor (and later, the protagonists’ life or death struggle to retain said mall was a beautifully prescient swipe at the ‘me’ generation) and if Land’s take on 80’s era greed was 20 years lost in the mail, it was still a pretty exciting ride.

The central conceit of Diary of the Dead, which begins at square one of the zombie plague, is that what we are watching consists of “found” camcorder footage. We are told this at the very beginning by Debra (Michelle Morgan), who has not only taken the trouble to edit this footage together, but also added music where applicable. “Because it should be scary” she adds, wearily. Unfortunately, Debra, like many misguided filmmakers before her, has chosen to add narration – a crushing blow from which Diary never recovers. Whereas Romero had previously trusted his audience to “get” his message in past films, he has decided here that the youthful audience that he shamelessly pines for is too thick-headed to pick up on subtlety. Leaden narration punches home nearly every action and pulls dramatic tension like marrow being sucked from a bone. Our protagonists, a group of University of Pittsburgh film students shooting a horror picture in the middle of the night (why their flask-tippling professor, who behaves as though he just emerged from six months at a Richard Burton re-education camp is with them isn’t touched upon) begin to hear report that “the bodies of the recently dead are returning to life and attacking the living”. What follows is a road trip through Canada posing as Pennsylvania – for shame, George! – as our group of utterly nondescript ciphers (save for professor Brian Cox as Ciaran Hinds in The Terence Stamp Story) meet up with potentially interesting characters that aren’t given enough screen time (silly as it may have been, I wanted more of the deaf, dynamite throwing Amish guy) and scare set pieces that that never seem fully realized.

Romero seems fixated on what he imagines the internet generation to be, and has made their handling of the zombie menace his focal point. In fact, Romero becomes so pre-occupied with getting his message across that he commits the cardinal sin of not being scary. Perhaps most irritatingly, characters endlessly toss around internet buzz words – “I’ve got to upload this!” – while the ever present narrator lectures the rest of us on our lack of humanity – “Now, it's us vs. them. But they are us”.

Oh, drop dead.

Part of the blame can be shared by the amateurish acting and vacuous screenplay, but Diary’s ultimate trouble is the premise itself. The recent Cloverfield (and the much less recent Blair Witch Project) at least had the courage of their convictions and presented us with believable ‘raw’ footage. But Romero decided to hedge his bets and have a survivor present the footage to us in movie form, losing nearly all the you-are-there terror that worked so well for the aforementioned pictures. Neither can Romero work up a decent suspense scene under the limitations that he has set for himself. An early encounter with zombies in a deserted hospital shows promise but then quickly peters out when the limited camerawork gets the better of him. There are potent images to be sure, but the majority – such as the “uploaded” footage of rednecks taking target practice at a zombie tied helplessly to a tree, or a “gut dump” onto a hospital floor, are cribbed from earlier Dead films. This never feels like a film he was passionate about making – just one he was offered money for.