Last weekend, I caught the West Coast premiere of George A. Romero’s latest zombie allegory, Diary of the Dead, and judging from memory, I think it’s my favorite installment since the 1968 original (which is the only one I’ve seen more than once). It’s got all the ingredients you might expect–slow moving and ravenous dead, resourceful and opportunistic characters, black humor, and creature feature gore–but this time out, the elements seem particularly impassioned and conscientiously formed. Personalities are intelligent and emotionally complex without edging out their function, the humor is softer and more existential, and even the violence seems to carry more tragic force; much of the dead are characters we previously cared about, and the bloodshed is often obscured by shadows or the film’s highly effective cinÈma vÈritÈ camerawork.
Romero began the Living Dead series by tapping directly into the specific, social terror contained in the premise of the dead rising to devour the living (foregoing all explanations) and has never let up. The series has reflected issues of Civil Rights, vacuous ’80s consumerism, unbridled militarism, the “War On Terror,” and now global online culture and amateur broadcasting (pictured in its indie coverage of the kind of disintegration of infrastructure we’ve seen in various American disasters of late, natural and otherwise).
Though some may criticize the film for its copious real world corollaries, perhaps biting off more than it can chew (no pun intended), I find such ambition a lot more thrilling than any number of splattered heads. If Romero’s zombie films have a single, unifying theme, it’s the role of the media (a driving concern even in his non-zombie movie, 1977’s Martin, in which a psychopathic teenager believes he’s a vampire–or is it the other way around?–and phones late night radio to talk about it). Is it any wonder that Diary‘s most heroic and endearing figure is a mute Amish man? The film takes on the media in so many ways, it may very well be Romero’s cinematic summa.
A group of film students shooting a mummy horror movie are interrupted one night by multiple reports of the dead attacking the living, and in various states of denial, incredulity and fear, the students gather in an RV and attempt to drive home. Their journey is fraught with dangerous encounters (including civilian and government militias) as they document the night with their own film equipment, debate the ethics of their coverage, glean information from the web, and upload their own version of events.
Shunning the objective camerwork of the first four Living Dead films, Diary is entirely presented as a compilation of the students’ subjective recordings, occasionally supplemented with footage from an extra camera they apprehend, security video, and brilliant montages of web footage taken from news coverage of real life disasters. Romero has obviously thought through this new aesthetic on many technical and thematic levels. The overall feel is more claustrophobic and immediate than before, and the technique generates considerable suspense through ellipses, prompting immediate questions every time there’s a jump in time. Romero maintains a running dialogue between the student cameraman–who feels the truth (from his perspective) must be faithfully preserved at all costs–and his subjects, who often wish their friend would put down the camera, relate to them as human beings, and even offer a helping hand once in a while.
The film is established on fascinating contrasts between life and death (obviously), camera and subject, camera and camera, indie and mainstream media, voyeurism and denial, cynicism and idealism, love and duty, humanity and inhumanity. Many of these contrasts are brought to life by the film’s talented cast, particularly Michelle Morgan as Diary‘s narrator and the cameraman’s no-nonsense girlfriend, who radiates a low-key emotional authenticity and inner strength all-too rare in female horror roles. Her character’s perspective underlines the film, serving as its philosophical pivot point caught between her allegiance to her boyfriend and her conflicting moral impulses. As such, it’s the key performance in the film, and Morgan delivers it with superb, underhanded flair.
Diary of the Dead marks the return of Romero’s series to its independent roots, and comes on the heels of last year’s large budget Universal production, Land of the Dead. While I admired that film, this one simply feels more essential, more carved out of Romero’s perspective on feelings and events that define our era. It represents the best aspirations of the genre, using spectacle and terror to provoke serious consideration of our place in the world at large. As near as I can tell, the film still doesn’t have an official website (apart from its highly appropriate My Space page) or a trailer, but it has been picked up for distribution by the Weinstein Company, which will hopefully leave its provocative assembly untouched.