People of Britain — go and see George A Romero’s DIARY OF THE DEAD! It got mostly wretched reviews here but it is pretty damn interesting. Certainly if you’re a Romero fan you’ll dig it, possibly more than LAND OF THE DEAD (hardcore gorehounds were disappointed with the 15 certificate levels of violence in that one, but I enjoyed it’s anti-neo-con satire and the Hawksian relationship between the three leads).
DOTD is plenty grisly, and packs in a lot in narrative terms as well. Seeing it in the midst of RED ROAD was certainly a lesson in what can be achieved in a low-budget digital feature. In the evening, I saw THE ROUND-UP with a q&a afterwards with octogenarian film god Miklós Jancsó, and he explained how his film’s long-take style enabled him to make it in 26 days. “Hah! DIARY OF THE DEAD was shot in 23 days,” I thought. And it has a higher body count, too. Plus, Romero is 68!
(Nevertheless, Jancsó and his film were amazing. Much more on Mr. J. later.)
Criticism of DIARY has centred on supposedly unlikable characters and the mockumentary technique whereby said characters, a team of film students, are seen making the film we’re watching, capturing the mayhem as it unfolds. Of course, CLOVERFIELD has already delivered the big-budget version of this trope, and rogue spanker Brian DePalma’s REDACTED uses a similar approach. It’s a zeitgeist thing, I guess, especially as the elephant in each film’s room is Iraq/Guantanamo Bay/Abu Ghraib, with only BDP’s film tackling the theme overtly. I’m guessing the reason the style and subject are coming together in this way is a reaction to the ubiquity of the war on YouTube, as well as the photographic documentation of atrocities at Abu Ghraib by the perpetrators themselves.
Romero’s fictional filmmakers are really not that unpleasant — compared to the fleshwads who litter THE COTTAGE, waiting to be disemboweled, they’re positive paragons of humanity. Their worst trait is their tendency to film everything, but it’s a good job they’re ruthless with the cameras, as how else would we get to watch? (But unlike in CLOVERFIELD, they have realistic travails with battery power.) One of Romero’s themes is how filmmaking is passed along like an infectious disease, parallel with the spread of the zombie contagion, so that the characters who morally reject the urge to document every tragedy are gradually tainted with by the process, and end up carrying on the film after the originator has gone.
Apart from the compromised heroes, some of the supporting figures are very appealing, or at least memorable. The deaf Amish guy with the sticks of dynamite ought to have a movie of his own. Hell, he ought to have a daily prime-time show. There’s a brilliantly scary National Guardsman-turned-looter, played by someone whose credit I can’t even find, but who ought to be a star. And there are cameos by Romero himself, Romero associate John Harrison (read of my encounter with the delightful Mr. H. here) and audio contributions by Stephen King, Wes Craven, Simon Pegg, Quentin Tarantino and Guillermo Del Toro. Guillermo’s sound-byte is the best value, partly because he has a recognisable voice, and also because of his distinctive Mexican take on the zombie phenomenon: “What we have to worry about now is all these people crossing the border between life and death.”
It’s kind of rare to see a film that basically gets better as it goes along. At first the mockumentary effect is rather unsatisfactory — you can’t have verité camera style unless you’re performances match it, and Romero’s are a touch too broad. The decision to use music (justified by one of the student’s explaining she’s added it because “I want to scare you”) seems a little cowardly, and Romero has never been great with music — it required Argento’s lurid skills to bring DAWN OF THE DEAD to full life in that respect. But as the action develops, taking the usual slow downturn into anguished despair (a big motif in all the Romero DEAD flicks), the film picks up increasingly, with sharp satire, surprising gore effects (a scythe through two heads at once? New to me!), and some disconcerting crazy humour. The post-modern version of gratuitous nudity struck me as naff — it may be a joke, but it’s still demeaning — but aside from that I was all in favour of this damn thing.
Interesting to note that it was forty years ago that the zombie invasion began, in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. And in the new film, it’s still beginning. Message: the zombie invasion is a constant in our lives.