'Diary of the Dead': Zombie See, Zombie Do
Friday, February 15, 2008
Zombies should comfort us. No, really. Unlike the rest of us -- so caught up in the workaday world, the day-care center pickups, the whole Sturm und Drang of living -- they are beyond anxiety. As they shuffle through panicked crowds -- strangely, trying to get away from them -- they are so relaxed. So oblivious to the screams.
You can't buy that inner peace.
We speak of the zombies we find in "George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead" and the kind we've seen consistently in Romero's previous "Dead" films. These undead aren't the feral monsters spitting and cursing through "28 Days Later." Or the sad-eyed, post-sepulchral commuters queuing woodenly at the bus stop in "Shaun of the Dead."
These are the originals. The 1960s-issue. The ones that creeped out students, stoners, socialists, last-Mohican hippies and Nixon youth alike in 1968's "Night of the Living Dead." The ones that kept coming in three more films, as the zeitgeists came and went: 1978's "Dawn of the Dead," 1985's "Day of the Dead" and the 2005 "Land of the Dead."
So in the latest venture, here they come again. Like a Fleetwood Mac reunion tour. Or maybe Cream, considering how long they've been around. And we are mostly delighted. Yes, mostly. "George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead" is witty, entertaining and appropriately gory. But we have an itsy-bitsy problem this time. A teeny one. Call it the timely issue.
Beyond the midnight-show scariness of his movies, Romero used the subgenre as a way to be ahead of the zeitgeist, most memorably in "Night of the Living Dead," which opened the wounds of race and racism; and in "Dawn of the Dead," which attacked our gross consumerism by setting the carnage in a shopping mall. And so on. But with "Diary," Romero has joined the satirical rank and file, the filmmakers who simply reprise existing notions that reflect our times. The target this time is too obvious and easy: the downloading, amoral, perpetually media-obsessed youth of today.
The movie centers on a group of University of Pittsburgh film students who are making a horror movie. When the inevitable zombie invasion occurs, their director, Jason Creed (Joshua Close), decides to make a hand-held reality movie about it. So "Diary" becomes a movie within a movie that, a voice-over rather portentously tells us, has been downloaded off the Internet.
Very meta, sure. But oh-so-present-day; backward-looking even. As if we're watching a Wes Craven redo, in which a group of camera-toting lambs trot obliviously into slaughter. And Romero's aping of the camcorder genre (such as "The Blair Witch Project" and "Cloverfield") feels surprisingly conventional -- the last thing we'd expect of him. There isn't that sense of unmentionable truth -- the kind in our heads that we dare not utter. Romero is instead echoing what we already know.
Not that it stops us from enjoying those ambulant stiffs and the terror they bring, even as they maintain that eerie serenity. We love their distinctive herky-jerky movements, like reanimated dolls, completely accepting their transition from quotidian stress to that 1,000-yard stare of oblivion. We won't soon forget the spectacle of an Amish zombie before and after its predictable fate. And we want to high-five Romero for finding new ways to off his lifeless marauders. We had no idea defibrillators could do that. But ultimately, it's only the straight ahead horror-for-horror's-sake that works this time, not so much the deeper "message," which, in this case, should have been buried quietly somewhere, with no chance of emerging from the grave.
George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead (95 minutes, at Arundel Mills Muvico, AMC Hoffman Center and Regal Gallery Place) is rated R for graphic horror violence and gore, and pervasive profanity.