Tuesday, June 22, 2010

George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead (2007)

George Romero is creative, talented, influential, critical, etc.; any positive attribute that can be bestowed upon a film maker, Romero earns it. His Dawn of the Dead (1978) is unequivocally my all-time favorite film, and I would certainly list the man very high, if I were to do so, in my all-time favorite directors. When I purchased his Diary of the Dead (2007) on DVD (on its release day, no less, and I missed its theatrical run), I didn't finish watching it, stopping around the forty-five minute mark, during the "72, 000 hits on YouTube" sequence. To be candid, I had no desire at the time to ever finish it, but lately I've been fascinated with directors' later works, made during periods in their artistic career when both viewers and critics feel they have little left to contribute to their craft.

Diary begins with a static shot of a street scene in front of an apartment building. Two police officers are radioing into the station, describing a murder of a family, by one of its own. The police officers seem to not "give a fuck" really about the murder and are less impressed to hurry, because it appears the victims and perpetrator were immigrants. Photo-journalists are also present, and they are as indifferent to the crime as the police officers. One cameraman asks the paramedics to move their ambulance, because it is blocking his shot. A news reporter is prepping her hair. Presumably the same cameraman who asks the ambulance to move is heard by the viewer off-camera remark on the ambulance driver's behavior: he's eating a sandwich while corpses are being rolled out on gurneys. How insensitive.

The next notable sequence involves voice-over narration by arguably Diary's main character, Debra (Michelle Morgan) who is going to do the viewing audience a favor by telling us what we are going to see and, more importantly, why we are going to see it. Her boyfriend, Jason (Joshua Close) was a film student making a student film with future hopes of being a documentary film maker. When a zombie outbreak occurred, Jason began filming the events. Apparently, Debra's character has edited the footage into a coherent feature and added dramatic music during particular scenes to scare the viewer (which is always appreciated and thank you). Kudos to Debra for having a specific motivation; however with Romero's street scene opening of Diary, Debra has to answer one more question (which she does not directly) for the viewer: "Hey lady, every one in the beginning of this movie is portrayed as being full of shit. What makes you any different?"

Romero's previous four zombie films have always had social criticism, but it rarely came off as finger-pointing. There was always at least one character who imbued the film with humility and humanity; because each film is, in a very general sense, a story about people who attempt to survive in a crisis and are ultimately undone not by the source of the crisis (e.g. the zombies) but by their own doings while trying to survive. Diary is also a survival story but lacking any humility with any of its characters. There is little faith in humanity to be had in Diary, and by the film's conclusion that point is painfully reiterated and overdone.

Here's an example with small sequences in which creative directors utilize to their maximum potential to enrich their films. Both Dawn and Diary have an eerily similar scene, but their differences speak loudly. In the first act of Dawn, Roger and Peter meet for the first time in the basement of a tenement building. They quickly bond and make a plan to escape and they are interrupted by a disabled priest who enters the basement to escape the tear gas. The old priest only wants a moment to rest and catch his breath, and Roger and Peter don't impede him. The priest shares with the two some real insights (and delivers some of Dawn's famous lines). Roger and Peter both show their intelligence by being silent and listening. In Diary, the desperate crew of main characters, on the road in their Winnie, break down. They stop at a farm in rural Pennsylvania to repair the Winnie. The main characters also encounter a disabled person who is not a religious figure but a person traditionally and typically associated specifically with his religion: a deaf/mute Amish farmer. The main characters immediately start talking (asking to use the farmhouse to repair the Winnie); but become frustrated and roll their eyes, because the farmer is slow in communicating. He has to write using a chalkboard to answer their questions. The farmer, in a would-be humorous touch, pulls dynamite from his shed and takes out some oncoming zombies. Unfortunately, this flourish is undermined by one of Diary's many bad lines: (after zombies explode) "Hey, aren't Amish supposed to be peaceful?"

Diary of the Dead is really well filmed with some effective lighting and handheld camerawork. Romero even drops in quite a few audacious compositions, such as when a soldier points his rifle directly at the camera. Unfortunately, the pacing, the characters, the acting, and the dialogue are extremely poor. These deficiencies are fascinating, because I have no idea what Romero was trying to say or do in Diary. One sequence stands out and perhaps hides his intentions (if Romero had any): in the first act, Jason, his friends, and teacher are making a student film. The characters share a lot of bad meta dialogue about horror films and even take on the debate of "walking versus running" monsters. Clever. The "walking versus running" debate, however, even more cleverly, hides another argument that the characters are having. Jason says that viewers like "believability" in their horror films with their characters and their actions (assuming the viewer does not insist on believability with the films' premises, e.g. a zombie apocalypse).

So is that what Romero is giving his audience with Diary? Believability? I suppose that Romero is successful with his film in some fashion. Nearly all of the characters in Diary after the outbreak only want to return to their hometowns to be with their families. This is a very understandable human sentiment. However, some of the other characters and their motivations become confused (instead of becoming complex characters). For example, Debra is depicted as having a relationship with Jason, but save the open sequence, these two are depicted as totally annoyed with each other's presence: Debra cannot stand Jason's continuous filming while Jason (even behind his camera) cannot get Debra to show any other emotion than defiance. When these two have a would-be tender moment in the final act, it stands out as totally incredulous (and it also confuses Debra's whole motivation with her initial narration). When the bad joke pops up (quite a bit) or the characters take time to pontificate (which should really only be done here on this blog), Diary just falls apart.

I do not know what the alternative is to believability in Diary. I do know that it is a grating film, really mean-spirited and angry. Being mean-spirited or angry is fine, but there is no discernible energy driving it. Diary of the Dead is a zombie film motivated by little faith in humanity. A really creative, socially-critical, playful, and talented film maker, like George A. Romero, could have made a great film out of it.


Alex B. said...

I did manage to catch this in the theatre and didn't regret spending money and time. But I haven't bothered to purchase the film on disc or re-watch it since. And I cannot bring myself to viewing "Survival of the dead" after the horrendous trailer.
Instead I've been re-watching stuff like "Season of the Witch" and "NOTLD" this week. Romero is a great screenwriter but I get the feeling that he hates the contemporary world and what popular cinema in general is becoming .

Ben said...

As a huge Romero fan, I found "Land of the Dead" to be an absolutely crushing disappointment a few years back, and haven't dared to even try to watch this one.

Going on the huge amount of negative stuff I've read about "Diary..", I think what you say about the film's lack of empathy/humanity cuts to the heart of the matter.

Romero's great films from the '60s and '70s were all essentially intelligent critiques of the problems he saw in social/human relations in those eras, but maybe as an older man he just feels so sickened by the selfishness and solipsism he sees in the current, younger generations that he can't help but just attack them by presenting them at their worst, and giving them the kind of crappy, cynical films they "deserve"...?

I can kind of understand that, even if I don't agree (or want to watch the films).

Alex B. said...

@ Ben - I also felt let down by "Land", that was my first big screen Romero experience. But I still went twice to see it, as there was no certainty at the time that Romero would make any more films.
These newer "Dead" films almost make one wish Romero would give up on the zombie saga and make low-key independent stuff. But poorly-received films like "Bruiser" showed clearly that the audiences don't want to see Romero as anything but the zombie director.

J.D. said...

I actually really like LAND OF THE DEAD and feel that it actually improves upon repeated viewings. I like how Romero gave a definite upgrade in the intelligence department to the undead while the humans continue to regress, embroiled in more bickering and in-fighting. After all, the zombies are the ultimate have-nots in this world. They are clearly tired of being shot at and exploited by the living. It’s almost as if the Big Daddy is some kind of zombie Che Guevara leading an undead revolution that wants to take down the corrupt, rich capitalists. In fact, LAND OF THE DEAD can be read as Romero’s critique of the Bush administration with Hopper's Kaufman as a Donald Rumsfeld stand-in.

As for DIARY, I also like this film too. It was nice to see Romero’s political and social commentary remaining as strong as ever as the news footage our protagonists watch on TV and the Internet eerily echoes that of New Orleans during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina complete with government officials blithely assuring us that they have the situation under control.

DIARY also comments on our culture’s desire to document everything for dissemination on the Internet. It has become the quickest way to obtain information and to pass it on to others all over the world.

Romero has also embraced this new technology with a vengeance by having his film students use digital cameras that are easily accessible and in turn allows the veteran filmmaker to return to the independent roots of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD while adopting the first-person perspective of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT mixed with the multimedia approach to acquiring information of Brian De Palma’s REDACTED.

Anyways, I think that both of these films show that Romero is still going strong and can bounce back and forth from studio films (LAND) back to indie (DIARY) pretty effortlessly.

The Film Connoisseur said...

I think what Romero was doing with Diary was making a contemporary horror film, in this way trying to make up for Land of the Dead's futuristic Mad Max like future that many didnt like.

Night, Dawn and Day all take place in the respective decades on which they were made (60's, 70's, 80's) but Land was in this weird future, which I didnt like. I wanted a zombie movie that would take place during our time, just like the previous films each took place in the decade they were made in.

So, in comes Romero with Diary of the Dead, which apparently takes place during our time, with internet, video cameras and youtube.

I think this was just Romero trying to make a contemporary zombie movie, commenting on our dependency on technology, and how we can use it to our advantage. It has a bit of a subversive message to it, use youtube to communicate amongst yourselves!

It was a good try on Romero's part, he even went and made it documentary style, ala many modern horror films, but I agree, it just felt flat.

Hans A. said...

I want to say a big thank you to all of you for some very insightful and thought-provoking comments left here. Despite my dislike for Diary, I believe that I'll give Survival a look. See how Romero follows this up. Always appreciate your visits and fantastic opinions. Thanks again.

Aaron said...

Nice write-up, Hans. It's very fair and "generous", for lack of a better word. I haven't seen this or SURVIVAL because why even bother. I've heard nothing but bad things about both and I don't feel the need to waste my time or money. I will say, though, that it really pisses me off when horror fans say things like "Romero should stop making movies". I think he should make whatever the fuck he wants, no matter how shitty they may be or people may perceive them to be, but it's up to people to use their better judgment and spend their money wisely. The same goes for people who bitch about remakes, but still pay money to go see them. Romero made some great movies in his day, there's no doubt about that, but I don't think he owes anyone anything.

@Alex "I get the feeling that he hates the contemporary world and what popular cinema in general is becoming" I agree, although he's pretty much always been that way.

@Ben I was actually very disappointed with LAND also, and it was actually the reason why I passed on DIARY and now SURVIVAL. As a matter of fact, I hated LAND, but I seem to be in the minority.

Emily said...

Interesting take. I don't hate this film, though I do agree that it's Romero's worst zombie entry. I'm of the mind that all his films get better on repeat viewing--which I think can easily be seen with LAND, a film a whole lot of people are slowly coming around to, and DAY, a film that was panned by just about everyone in '85 and is now held in high (maybe too high, in my account) esteem.

For me, the worst crime in this film is the narration. I really do wonder how it would play had Romero done another cut with no voiceover.

Oh! And fun me fact: Dawn is also my favorite all-time movie ever. We will have to fight over it if ever stuck on separate deserted islands.

Hans A. said...

@Aaron--Thanks. I totally agree with the statement that Romero should make what he wants (or any film maker). I just don't understand where he's coming from, so I'm even more intrigued to see Survival.

@Emily--Thank you, ma'am. You have excellent taste in your top film, but I'm a pussycat (or a whimp) so in the deserted island setting, you can claim Dawn. As for the voice-over narration, I don't know how the film would fare with out it. It's the only thing that gives Debra's character any depth. Then again, removing it couldn't hurt as the narration's lines are as poor as the rest of the dialogue.

Thanks again to both of you--I value your opinions and your visits are always appreciated.

Shaun Anderson said...

I appear to be in a distinct minority with my lack of admiration for DAWN OF THE DEAD. Of Romero's DEAD films the only two I like are NIGHT and DAY. The rest I'd gladly live without. I thought DIARY OF THE DEAD was a vast improvement on LAND OF THE DEAD. I reviewed it myself a few months ago, and reading over my review I think I was too charitable to DIARY. The problem I have with Romero is that he seems to feel that the only way to get his 'message' across is by bashing the audience over the head repeatedly with a sledgehammer until they get it! He doesnt seem to trust the audience enough to formulate their own views and make their own minds up....MARTIN is a masterpiece though!

Hans A. said...

The issue that I have with Romero is not so much how he delivers his commentary--I actually find the commentary within Dawn extremely organic. With Diary, I believe Romero was attempting to hit his viewer over the head with his message--his overall, meanspirited tone to the film went hand in hand with how he delivered his message. Survival is much more relaxed with many of the same themes and social commentary from Diary and it lacks Diary's mean-spirtedness. Interestingly, Survival is so relaxed that it contains virtually no horrific scares. It plays more like a comedy. I've yet to revisit Land after its DVD release. At the most I can only call it mediocre. Appreciate your thoughts, Shaun.