I have been looking forward to this since the first reviews came out of Toronto’s Midnight Movies late last year. The buzz was positive, and many critics claimed it was Romero’s strongest film in 30 years (that’s about the time DAWN came out, you know...) Anyway, I was hoping this would be true, since I’m a huge fan of Romero and was really wanting him to get back into the swing of things after some middling work in the last few years. So, I set out to see just what the master of zombie horror had concocted this time, and was pleasantly surprised.
Picking up on Day 1 of infection, a student film crew shooting a horror flick for class is caught up in the madness that ensues once the dead start coming back to life. Out of a sense of mission, the director and cameraman of the crew, Jason Creed, decides to keep filming in the hopes of being able to turn the footage of their journey into a documentary feature of his own, with the naive and somewhat narcissistic goal of informing people of what is really happening in the face of the lies being spread by the popular media. This is the set-up for Romero’s trademark social commentary, which is a bit more in-your-face than normal, albeit with mostly good results.
Romero’s take on the consumption (and production) of media in our current cultural climate is a breath of fresh air, and is infinitely more successful than CLOVERFIELD (a movie I also liked, by the way) or Brian De Palma’s REDACTED, mostly because the editing is put front and center by the film, and is acknowledging its own manipulations. Unlike CLOVERFIELD, where the back story is simply - albeit cleverly conceived - present as original portions of a videocassette that weren’t taped over, the film of DIARY OF THE DEAD is completely produced, providing a glimpse at both the way in which information is constructed (via downloads on the Internet, stock footage, voice-over narrations, etc.) but also the way in which we actively participate in horrible events by providing said information for consumption and/or production. The relationship between the zombie holocaust and traumatic global events like war and famine are linked explicitly (and sometimes a little clumsily) by Romero’s film, and the result is simply devastating as social commentary.
What the viewer is left with is a pretty nasty indictment of the consumption of media, or more precisely, HOW it is consumed. Every day, the public eats up thousands and thousands of images, bits of half-informed information from modern anomalies like blogs and personal websites with no filter on the content they can share with anyone willing to take a look. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing until the process of production/consumption begins to actively detract from that which is being documented, be it war or zombies or anything else. Once we refuse to come out from behind our screens - our safety nets - we have already lost. And that’s the message that ultimately is given.
Apart from the commentary and critique, the film also works as a horror film, though it goes against the current trend of ultra-violent gore and predictable methods of terror. That’s not to say that there aren’t bucket loads of blood or the really creepy moments, or even bits where things jump out from nowhere, but that all of this is really insubordinate to the horror of exactly what this would be like in the world we currently live in. How would we ever know it’s actually happening if no one is willing to report the truth until it’s too late, or until we experienced it first-hand with the deaths, and then reanimations of our family members who then turn around only to consume us.
The group eventually begin to die off one by one, with the moral questions of filming and production of a documentary with such events going on around you becoming the focal point of the film both in its meta-narrative structure (its editing and self-conscious narration) as well as in its story, with characters constantly calling into question the validity of it in place of actually doing anything. How, after all, can one help his or her friends survive attacks if they are unwilling to take a side, and are only there to observe?
I really liked the interaction between much of the cast, and though some of it was a bit corny, the dialogue was actually really believable. I can see how some people may have a bit of a problem as far as credibility goes. After all, how many people are actually going to just keep shooting instead of helping out. But, then again, many people watch horrible events day in and day out and instead of stepping in and saying enough’s enough, simply pull out their various portable devices so they can take video and send it to their friends without even thinking about becoming involved. Once again Romero has found a more-than-apropo link between the living and the undead, only this time by indicting that which has the inherent ability of proving life - the ability to record and remember.
As a zombie film, Romero’s latest certainly delivers, and there are plenty of gross-out moments and trademark Romero cheese thrown in for good measure. Is it his best film in thirty years? Maybe, though personally, I’d only go so far back as CREEPSHOW, which is more fun than DIARY OF THE DEAD, but devoid of much commentary, so it all balances out in the end. I may end up discussing this film more in the future, if and when time permits.