Wednesday, September 19, 2007

TIFF 2007 Review: "Diary Of The Dead"

George A. Romero’s DIARY OF THE DEAD
(USA, 2007)
Written and directed by George A. Romero
Cast: Shawn Roberts, Joshua Close Michelle Morgan, Jon Dinicoi, Phillip Riccio, Scott Wentworth

George A. Romero was unhappy with the State Of The Zombie Nation. His fourth installment in his allegorical horror saga, Land Of The Dead, was a return to Hollywood filmmaking, which demanded that he ensure the studio (Universal) an “R” rating (not an easy thing when the operating philosophy of the cast is “shoot ‘em in the head!”), employ “name” actors (Dennis Hopper, John Leguizamo) over Pittsburgh-area unknowns, and worst of all, shoot it in Toronto, subbing for his preferred Pennsylvania climes (at least the Florida-shot Day Of The Dead was set in The Sunshine State!).

As Romero and his crew were desperately trying to make the Leslie Spit look like the Three Rivers junction, across town a remake of his 1978 second chapter Dawn Of The Dead was in production. This one was also set in a shopping mall, but eschewed social commentary for slam-bang action and dared to suggest that the recently-resurrected could be fast! Running zombies? That stuff might fly in London, but here--it was time for the founding father to seriously rethink where his creation was going.

Romero’s Dead installments have always been uniquely attuned to the temperament of their times. 1968’s Night Of The Living Dead sounded like an undistinguished drive-in programmer, but was a thoughtful examination of the gradual collapse of social order within the microcosm of a remote farmhouse, with black leading man (rare for its day) crafty enough to survive the ghouls but not a careless bullet from an overzealous militia. Ten years later, Dawn Of The Dead saw the plague move to the inner cities, and worked in some pointed (dare-I-say biting?) satire on materialism and conspicuous-consumption between Tom Savini’s outrageous Grand Guignol bloodletting. 1985’s more didactic Day Of The Dead was a response to the Reagan-era’s “might makes right” philosophy as a cure-all for the world’s problems. And 2005’s Land Of The Dead (which was conceived in the 1990s but plagued with production delays) saw human civilization rising from the chaos but doomed to repeat its mistakes.

So where to take it next? It occurred to Romero that the time was right for a reboot (Night Of The Living Dead was already remade with Romero’s blessing in 1990) to re-examine the original’s premise through today’s omniscient media. In 1968, the survivors were totally reliant on "official' sources—a single black and white television airing a local news feed was the only window to the insanity that was spreading across the nation. By 1978, the collapsing Pittsburgh cable access channel kept the experts talking and knowingly broadcasted false hope about emergency shelters to keep whatever viewers were left watching. How would America react to a zombie infestation today? Would they even believe it? Would they trust their sources or turn to the alternative media? Could citizen journalist be trusted? Would the YouTubers be content to simply tape it, mix it, upload it, and watch it as just another viral distraction?

It’s a heady concept, and a dramatically risky one—but Diary Of The Dead transcends its “Blair Witch”y hook, thanks to Romero’s ever-virile imagination and Humanist anger (mixed with a healthy dollop of Catholic outrage) that four-decades after he conceived of something called “Night Of Anubis” shows no sign of exhausting itself at the age of 67.

An off-screen female narrator, Debra (Michelle Morgan), tells us that the film we are about to see is “The Death Of Death”, a documentary that has been assembled on-the-fly from a variety of sources but is, she assures us, the absolute “truth”. When it begins, a group of film students lead by Jason (Joshua Close) are shooting a no-budget “mummy” movie late at night in the Pennsylvania woods, when they are attacked by what appears to be a real zombie, which is captured by their own camcorders. They escape in their Winnebago and return to the University of Pennsylvania campus, which has already been invaded by the undead.

The government, predictably, denies any crisis (“a virus that causes mass psychosis” is the official explanation, shades of the “Venus probe” virus offered in the original), but the underground news media and portable technology unleashes what is being suppressed. Online, a video makes the rounds of a domestic crime scene where the allegedly “dead” victims rise up and attack the paramedics and the police.

Joined by their surviving college professor (Scott Wentworth), the students take to the road to head for Jason’s opulent family home and encounter increasing numbers of the living dead at every turn. In the countryside, they help an Amish farmer secure his property. A group of African-American survivalists who were left abandoned suspect their intentions but eventually acknowledge they’re fighting for the same cause. During a run to the hospital to pick up supplies, Jason is so committed to capturing the “right” images that the ghouls almost overpower them. Debra encounters her resurrected mother. The dead are rising all right—this is no online Orson Welles hoax—and Jason appoints himself to be mankind’s last, official chronicler of its dying days…

Romero’s attempts at mock-verite are very convincing—he began his career as a documentary filmmaker in Pittsburgh before taking a gamble on features—and while Diary Of The Dead is serious-minded, it’s not all so Costa Gavras that it skimps on the stuff that keeps us coming back to these movies again and again: the flesh-eating is plentiful and gruesomely entertaining, and KNB’s makeup effects are amongst the most convincing yet realized (and there have been a lot of zombie yarns since 1968) and are greatly aided by seamless CGI substitution. And Romero’s expected black humour (he once staged a pie-and-seltzer-bottle fight amidst a zombie attack, remember?) is in steady supply, with deaf/mute Amish farmer “Samuel” being one of the more memorable encounters, as he dispatches the undead with his farm instruments and introduces himself to the camera through a chalkboard around his neck.

Celebrity voice cameos add to the fun: listen close, and you’ll hear Shawn Of The Deads Simon Pegg, Guillermo Del Toro, Quentin Tarantino, Wes Craven, and even Stephen King, one of Romero’s best friends and a frequent collaborator.

There are obvious echoes here, of the shocking Katrina viz and the Bush administration’s supression of Abu Ghraib images and other horrors of the Iraq War (a subject that fellow genre icon Brian DePalma tackled this same year with his mockumentary Redacted, which I will also review shortly). And Jason’s commitment to capture everything at any costs, even to his friends’ well-being, rings depressingly true in light of increasingly voyeuristic footage that has been burned into the public consciousness. The hook itself is not entirely new to the genre (in Zack Snyder’s Dawn remake—which I’m a big fan of btw despite Romero’s lamentations—incorporates home video footage in its chilling coda), and some of the narration is a little too on the nose, perhaps (a problem with Day, too), but given that the film-within-the-film is created by impassioned college students, we can forgive their penchant for melodrama.

Are we worth saving?”, Debra asks as the film closes. It’s certainly not the first time a George A. Romero character has posed this loaded question, and hopefully not the last (I think we need one of these every 10 years or so to take stock of things). Maybe next time, though, Romero will give the zombies the camcorders and let us see it from their POV—the shots won’t be as steady, but at least they’ll shut up and let the pictures tell the tale.

©2007 Robert J. Lewis