Diary of the Dead (2007): Romero, Back to Zombie Land

It’s a matter of opinion whether George A. Romero, respectable founder of the modern zombie film, is spinning his wheels with one variation after another of his seminal 1968 “Night of the Living Dead,” or still finds fresh new blood (no pun intended) in a movie franchise that has already given us four segments.

Premiering at the 2007 Toronto Festival, at the Midnight Madness section, “Diary of the Dead,” which is released by the Weinstein Company February 22, divided critics, even aficionados of the old maestro’s oeuvre. An estimable colleague said after the screening, “What else could you do if you are 67 (Romero’s age) and working in a medium dominated by indiscriminating teenagers” Perhaps. But there are other ways to look at Romero’s output.

For one thing, the master of horror returns to the kind of filmmaking he had pioneered and the genre he invented. In his first zombie film in over 20 years, Romero takes us back to ground zero in the history of the living dead.

Romero has never been interested in zombie carnage or effects for their own sake. Watching the fifth film in the series, “Diary of the Dead,” you immediately notice the difference between a campy, over-the-top zombie flick like Robert Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror” (the first half of “Grindhouse), which is done for frivolous fun and effects, and Romero’s more ambitious and resonant films, which always include some relevant social commentary about urgent issues that plague American society, prime among which are our distorted media-saturated environment and the use and abuse of new technology by the government and the military.

Though the imagery is vastly different, once again Romero returns to the familiar landscape of rural Pennsylvania, where all of his films are set, and which has becomes a consistent and reliable dimension of his work in the same way that Baltimore is for John Waters, or Manhattan’s Upper East Side for the old Wood Allen movies. (The picture was actually shot in Canada’a Ontario, standing in for Pittsburgh and its surroundings.)

New saga owes more than the previous ones to the 1999 horror flick, “The Blair Witch Project,” and not just due to its use of point-of-view camera and narrative premise of old footage retrieval. That 1999 feature proves to have a more lasting effect than anticipated, what with the recent monster creature horror, “Cloverfield,” that owes its entire existence to the low-budget Sundance indie hit.

There’s no doubt that Romero now targets his movies at a much younger demographic, teenagers, who single-handedly account for the viability of the horror genre in the marketplace. But though he relies more and more on CGI and other state-of-the art visual and aural devices, he is not pandering to his audiences, nor does he resort to cheap techniques and tricky bloodshed.

Set in the Internet Age, new saga is narrated by Debra (the beautiful Michelle Morgan), and the mere fact of having a female as the self-confident (at least initially) protag of a Romero picture is reassuring. Debra has downloaded some unedited footage assembled by Jason (Joshua Close), a TV journalist who had been killed by a dead victim (you read right) at the scene of the crime.

The ensuing tale is movie-within-a movie-within a movie. Let me explain, it’s not so confusing. “Diary of the Dead” is Debra’s version of her boyfriend Jason’s version of something called “The Death of Death,” a first-person documentary of the dead that disrupted the making of Jason’s low-budget horror flick.

Tale begins when Jason Creed and a small crew of college filmmakers are in the Pennsylvania woods making a horror film when they hear the terrifying news that the dead have started returning to life. Led by Jason’s girlfriend, Debra, the frightened young filmmakers set off in a friend’s old Winnebago, trying to get back to the only safety they know: Their homes.

However, there is no escape from the crisis, nor any real home for them anymore. Everything they depend upon is fractured as the plague of the living dead begins to spread. Jason documents the true-life horrors in a tense, first-person style that heightens the reality of each encounter. As his friends die, or are attacked by ravenous walking corpses, Jason keeps shooting–an obsessive, unflinching eye in the midst of chaos.

In brief expository scenes, we get Debra’s motivation for doing it, namely disclosing the truth that our evil government is concealing with the active collaboration (conspiracy) of our mainstream media, a bunch of weak, uncritical journos that betray the mission of their once noble profession. Indeed, the government first denies, then promises to quell the crisis. But it doesn’t–or cant. Technology fails, and communication with the rest of the world becomes impossible.

Jason and the remainder of his crew end up on their own, a handful of survivors relying on their own instincts to stay alive. They take final refuge in a mansion-fortress, but their sanctuary turns out to be a trap. Throughout it all, the cameras keep rolling, recording every detail for future generations.

The narrative enables Romero to comment on his favorite socio-political issues (which prevailed in his last pictures) and also comment on the new conventions of the horror genre over the past four decades. (Incidentally, it’s precisely 40 years since the revolutionary black-and-white “Night of the Living Dead” was released).

Viewers with some awareness of film theory will immediately recognize how well-versed Romero is in such concepts as subjective POV, spectatorship, and intertextuality, and how easy it is for him to apply these ideas to his new work.

What’s really new in Romero’s universe, you may ask Or is “Diary of the Dead” just the latest variation of a familiar theme The use of the filmmaking format in horror stories is no longer an innovative element. However, the humor has become blacker, more wicked, and the text’s politics, both manifest and latent, have grown more cynical and impatient.

It helps that some of the film’s visuals are truly haunting, such as Debra meeting face-to-face with her mother (walking-dead, of course). Or the sight of Jason at one of the climaxes, realizing that he is becoming a zombie himself and commanding Debra, “Shoot Me!” which is done with a camera! A double-entendre if there ever was one.

I may be reading too much into the work, but Romero again reaffirms his credo about film as a recorder of the past and repository of memory to be used in various, unanticipated ways in the future. Again, this is not a novel idea (it goes back to Godard and the French New Wave). However, when Romero suggests that our cameras serve as witnesses to carnage (allusions to post 9/11, Iraq War and other atrocities), while also functioning as a vibrant force in perpetuating that violence, and is doing it within the format of a zombie flick, he deserves credit for not succumbing to the horrific S&M torture and excessive special-effects violence that define the “Saw I to IV” or “The Hostel Part I and II” movies.

Credits

A Weinstein Co. release of an Artfire Films, Romero-Grunwald production.
Produced by Peter Grunwald, Artur Spigel, Sam Englebardt, Ara Katz.
Executive producers: Dan Fireman, John Harrison, Steve Barnett.
Directed, written by George A. Romero.
Camera: Adam Swica.
Editor: Michael Doherty.
Music: Norman Orenstein.
Production designer: Rupert Lazarus.
Costume designer: Alex Kavanagh.
Sound: Zenon Waschuk.
Special makeup effects producer: Greg Nicotero. Visual effects: Spin.

MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 94 Minutes.