George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead
Rated R, 94 min. Directed by George A. Romero. Starring Joshua Close, Michelle Morgan, Scott Wentworth, Shawn Roberts, Amy Ciupak Lalonde, Joe Dinicol, Philip Riccio.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Feb. 29, 2008
Every generation gets the George A. Romero socio-political zombie opus they deserve. 2005's Land of the Dead, touted as Romero's comeback-little-Shiva head shot, now seems like some half-baked blotch of 1990s back-splatter, equal parts class-war stridency and bored-looking dead folks. Too, it had a genuine Sixties echo in Dennis Hopper, a living, breathing actor who nevertheless has struck me as cinematically zombified at least since River's Edge. If anything, Land of the Dead made 1985's shouty Day of the Dead, unfairly considered to be the weakest of Romero's Dead outings, look positively killer by comparison. But forget the post-9/11 wish-wash of Land of the Dead already; Romero obviously has. Diary of the Dead cuts right back to the beating, bleeding heart of Romero's original Night of the Living Dead and does it with as much of the same fast, cheap, and out-of-control guerrilla panache as is likely possible four decades on. If 1968's Night of the Living Dead was Romero's visceral rejoinder to the Vietnamethadrine paranoid freakouts of the late Sixties (and it pays to remember that that film arrived in drive-ins a scant eight months after the revelations of American atrocities at My Lai), then Diary of the Dead is his no-less-disturbing cri de mort in the wake of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and Bagram-based black-and-blue ops – all of which, as Romero's nightmare repeatedly underscores, we now discover, watch, and absorb at an orders-of-magnitude rate far higher than old-school 24 frames per second, thanks to the near-instantaneous digital-media saturation that is the blogosphere, YouTube, and 24-hour cable news networks. "The octopus," as Romero calls the digital blitzkrieg, is simultaneously repurposing reality and desensitizing We the Viewer just when We the People most need to be alert. Clearly, Romero, the countercultural dystopian, is still very much engaged and interested in going down shrieking, metaphorically and otherwise. And as for Diary of the Dead? The narrative has a group of college kids creating an on-the-fly documentary (windily titled The Death of Death) as the recently deceased rise up and, well, you know the rest. Genre fans can play spot-the-vocal-cameos from the likes of Guillermo del Toro, Wes Craven, Stephen King, and Shaun of the Dead's Simon Pegg, while nongenre fans, having presumably wandered into the wrong theatre, will require a good, stiff drink at the very least. Romero has said that Diary of the Dead was the single best filmmaking experience he's had since he helmed the original Night of the Living Dead 40 years ago, and it shows, not only in the multiple layers of subtext (which give the zombies in the audience something to chew on) but also in his still ridiculously inventive gore effects and, most shocking of all, the sudden, wholly unexpected moments of laugh-out-loud comedy, black as night and pitched just this side of hysteria though they are. Diary of the Dead isn't a perfect film; it's not meant to be a perfect film. It's rough around the edges, dirty in the middle, and stained through with a sort of nihilistic humanism that ultimately unsettles more than the lurching undead themselves. They're dead, and it's all messed up, cunningly so. Diary of the Dead is meant to scare your pants off, blow your mind out the back of your skull, and then deposit you ungently back into reality, quaking a little, maybe, but still alive and, unlike the undead, thinking. (See "The Film Prof's Drunk, and the Kids Are Not All Right," for an interview with Romero.)