Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Diary of the Dead

George A. Romero’s ‘Dead’ series continues apace! After the twenty-year hiatus (disregarding various remakes) between 1985’s Day of the Dead and 2005’s Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead arrives after only two years of further waiting. Then again, who’s doing the waiting? Although there has always been a small demographic that enjoys and applauds Romero’s attempts at illuminating social commentary, his better-known films have been, are and always will be appreciated primarily as kitschy festivals of gore. This is the area, after all, in which their true strengths lie. While his recent efforts have continued the satirical theme and updated it for the present day, the only reason they exist at all is because the release of 28 Days Later in 2002 caught on to a new wave of apocalyptic paranoia and turned zombies into a viable Hollywood commodity again. Satirists need to get paid too.

Perhaps I’m being unduly cynical though. After Day of the Dead, Romero expressed a desire to avoid making more zombie films, so I guess he was as tired of them as everyone else (with the exception of video-camera-owning students, for whom the genre conventions of bad plotting, acting, directing and editing have always been highly expedient). Of course, he would have sounded more convincing if he’d gone on to make some other films, but apparently that wasn’t on the cards either. Maybe he was doing something more worthwhile: if a cure for AIDS, practical electric car or logical proof for the existence/nonexistence of God appears over the course of the next few years, bearing the Romero name, I will eat a hatful of my own sarcastic jibes (perhaps starting with this one). However, the more likely scenario is that in the zombie no-man’s-land of the 1990s, Romero didn’t have any films to make.

Speaking of video-camera-owning students, the protagonists of DotD are a group of just this sort. They are interrupted in their efforts to make a mummy movie (and what is a mummy movie but a zombie movie with period dress?) by a radio broadcast detailing an outbreak of seemingly unrelated murders in the local area, and decide to head for the security of home. Naturally, the situation rapidly escalates, and one of the gang takes it upon himself to record their experiences, so that the world can “see the truth.” The result is a fictitious horror ‘documentary’ in the vein of other recent releases such as Cloverfield and [Rec], through which Romero attempts to explore the fallibility of the mainstream media and the role of the Internet as an international forum for the (relatively) unregulated exchange of information. Noble intentions, of course, but where the project calls for a certain deftness of touch, Romero comes on with all the subtlety of one of his moaning, groaning, gut-munching chums. Throughout the film, a voiceover drones on portentously about media deception, and characters frequently confront each other with scathing ironic observations such as “if you’re not recording it, it doesn’t exist,” when their time might be more profitably spent hiding or fleeing.

Of course, the film is presented as the creation of the characters it depicts, some of whom have survived long enough to edit it together for posterity, and this self-reflexivity is supposed to elevate the awkward fourth-wall dynamic and generally clunky film making. It might even have worked, if it wasn’t for the fact that DotD fails to fulfil the basic requirement of the conceit: it just isn’t convincing. Rather than looking like a series of unplanned events unfolding before an amateur cameraman, early scenes resemble a bad B movie, with two-dimensional characters awkwardly trading conspicuously expository dialogue; the effect is reminiscent of the cheap FMV sequences featured in mid-90s computer games with ‘cinematic’ pretensions. Contrast this with Cloverfield, about which one of the most frequently recurring complaints (focused particularly on the opening fifteen minutes, before the monster attack) is that the characters are smug and irritating. Disparaging as this judgement is, at least it demonstrates that viewers identify the figures before them as plausible and, on some level, ‘real’.

Admittedly, as DotD progresses, it manages to establish more space for the suspension of disbelief, and a few memorable moments transpire, although they are chiefly aimed at zombie ‘connoisseurs’. Attractive young people are terrified, the living dead are despatched in a variety of exciting ways (defibrillator pads to the head, archery, scythe through the face via another person’s face) and fun is had with certain genre conventions. There’s also a rather absurd (in a good way) sequence with a deaf Amish man who communicates via a small chalkboard. All in all, fairly enjoyable stuff, and not a terrible way to kill ninety-five minutes for those inclined towards comedy dismemberment. However, it’s a great shame that the more cerebral message ultimately weighs down the material, rather than elevating it.

No comments: