Monday, October 17, 2011

Halloween Short-Cut # 6: "Diary of the Dead" by David Pretty

Hey There, Brain Munchers!

Diary of the Dead?  Yeah, more like Diarrhea of the Dead...  


Honestly, I'm a huge fan of George A. Romero.  After all, the man single-handedly redefined the modern zombie with Night of the Living Dead (1968) and then followed that up with Dawn of the Dead (1978), which has been rightfully described as the Gone With The Wind of zombie films.

Day of the Dead (1985) did a serviceable job rounding out the trilogy, but it was somewhat marred by overwrought performances and tragically truncated gore effects.  Then Romero took a much-needed break from the genre, that is until zombies became ridiculously popular again thanks to 28 Days Later and Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake.  Honestly, I really can't slight Romero for wanting to go back to the undead well again, especially in light of the resounding thud that movies such as Monkey Shines made upon release.

So, after a twenty-year hiatus, Romero gave us Land of the Dead (2005), a respectable affair that, at the very least, had loads to say about the growing divide between class in our society.  It also served up a loopy performance by John Leguizamo as Cholo and a relatively sedate showing from Dennis Hopper as the bloodless, ice-cold bureaucrat Kaufman.  It was also the first of his films to feature NRA-flavored zombies with an aptitude for firing guns; as if a slowly-shambling horde of flesh-eaters isn't threatening enough!

In the intervening years between Land and Diary, the hand-held camera/found footage genre became hot thanks to flicks like The Blair Witch Project so Romero had a bash at "zombifying" the technique.  Unfortunately, in addition to feeling a little late to the party, the decision to tether the camera to only a few characters really makes it seem as if the film was actually shot by the students.  Which is to say, rather poorly.

Romero uses a lot of slick editing and stock footage to overcome this deficit in the trailer:

The movie itself begins with rarely-glimpsed film-maker Jason (Joshua Close) on the set of his low-budget student horror flick.   In the middle of their shoot, the crew begins to hear odd news reports about recently deceased bodies coming back to life and attacking the living.  Upon hearing this, Jason immediately switches gears and begins to document the event, convinced that what's going on will render his fictional project completely irrelevant.

After they retrieve Jason's girlfriend Debra (Michelle Morgan) from her deserted dormitory, the crew quickly discovers first hand just how badly things have gotten when they take a wounded friend to a nearby hospital.  The building is positively rife with shambling, cannibalistic walking corpses.  While trying to escape, one of the students is bitten and soon it's established that anyone who dies is destined to come back as an Undead Amaerican.  Yikes!

The group then decides to take their trailer on a road trip to Scranton (?) to reunite Debra with her parents.  Along the way they encounter an Amish holdout, a community of rogue National Guardsmen and, of course, hordes of undead ghouls.  All the while, Jason's camera is ever-present and it quickly becomes obvious that he's obsessed with recording every aspect of society's meltdown.

Like many of his previous flicks, Romero packs Diary of the Dead with tons of clever subtext.   The horror maestro has a veritable field day commenting about how mainstream media can falsify "reality"  and how the  proliferation of privately owned video cameras and social media can counter-balance this.  Also, the film covers some of the same themes touched on in Midnight Meat Train (reviewed here by your truly).  Indeed, Jason manages to insulate himself quite effectively from all the horror thanks to the distance and abstraction provided by the cold camera lens.      

For this reason alone, the film earns a marginal reprieve, but it still doesn't prevent it from being a somewhat turgid, static and even unintentionally funny affair.  I just kills me how Jason keeps filming incessantly, even when Debra is being assaulted by her zombified brother.  Regardless of how committed he is to capturing everything on video, I can assure you that as soon as he made the mistake of doing this just once, the zombies would be the last thing he'd have to worry about.  In fact his next documentary subject would probably be the inside of his own colon.      

The performances are generally quite good, especially for a Romero flick.  Unfortunately, the hand-held technique seems to devalue the efforts of the actors somewhat.  It also doesn't help that Romero's occasionally ripe dialogue and heavy-handed characterization comes across as a tad hackneyed.  Scott Wentworth as the laconic, British academic advisor really labors under this particular burden.

Although the production values look pretty solid, the found footage approach makes it seem needlessly cheap and amateurish.  If this actually was a student film, I'd be somewhat impressed but coming from an industry veteran like Romero, it's kinda weak-sauce.  To make matters even worse, Romero actually stoops to using generous dollops of CGI, which sticks out like a sore thumb.  Coming from one of the biggest proponents of practical, in camera splatter effects, this is pretty disappointing.

The sad fact is, having our point of view constantly linked to a conceptual "video camera" really is counter-productive when generating suspense.  For example, the "climactic" final act in Ridley's house is completely devoid of tension since the mansion's security cameras show us everything that's going on.   Sorry, but grainy footage of an actor in barely-discernible zombie make-up stumbling comically around until he runs into a character wielding a camcorder is barely engaging let alone scary.

At least Romero went through the trouble of infusing his story with some subtext, which is a helluva lot more then what most writer/directors do nowadays.  Unfortunately the technique chosen to tell the story is counter-intuitive to it's impact.  It's a failed experiment that probably looked a lot better on paper then in did the editing room.

   Tilt: down

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