Friday, October 10, 2008

31 DAYS OF FRIGHT: Don't Bury Dead, First Shoot in Head

Given that this year marks the 40th anniversary of his groundbreaking, trend-setting zombie classic NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, I would love to be here touting DIARY OF THE DEAD as a triumphant return to form for writer/director George Romero. Fact is, I wanted to feel the same way about 2005's long-awaited but disappointing LAND OF THE DEAD. It wasn't to be then and it isn't to be now.

While other films in Romero's zombie series have touched on everything from race and consumerism to military might and class struggles, DIARY aspires to be a commentary on our culture's obsession with reality programming. The everybody-is-a-documentarian-slash-reporter attitude encouraged by our easy access to blogs, video cameras, wireless internet connections, YouTube and social networking sites would seem like fertile ground for an independent filmmaker such as Romero, but DIARY finds him struggling with his dual roles as both social commentator and gore-monger.

Taking a page from the cheaper, more enjoyable CEMETERY GATES, DIARY features a kid named Jason and a group of his college buddies out filming a mummy movie in the Pennsylvania woods (?!) when news of the zombie outbreak crackles over a nearby radio. One would think that the horror-movie-within-a-horror-movie concept would give Romero a chance to riff on genre cliches and perhaps skewer some of his critics but all he does is serve up the same self-referential movie claptrap and pretentious talk of horror with underlying social satire that you'll see in half the direct-to-video crap clogging video store shelves or my NetFlix queue.

Unsure just what the news reports mean, the group splits up as the mummified rich kid and one of the female students split to his mansion outside Philly while the rest of the crew packs into an RV piloted by Mary, a dour, religious type. After they swing by the Pitt campus and grab Jason's girlfriend Mary, they head off with Drunken Professor, Angry New York Guy, Bubbly Southern Belle and several other stock characters so forgettable that I can't remember their names.

Zig-zagging through the backroads of the Pennsylvania countryside the intrepid survivors encounter zombies, helpful-but-doomed Amish dudes, National Guard troops, and more zombies in their efforts to, well, it's never really clear. At one point they head to Mary's house in Scranton in hopes of finding her family, there's talk of swinging by Harrisburg to drop off one survivor, and they eventually point the RV towards Philly and the mansion we all knew was going to come into play as soon as it was mentioned.

The whole time these episodic adventures take place Jason and his ever-present cameras are recording them, intent as he is on truthfully documenting what's happening without the filter of the government or the mainstream media. Unfortunately, we never know enough about Jason to understand or sympathize with his obsession and each scene seems punctuated with the same argument about how it feels to have the camera always watching you, recording you, tracking you. Yawn.

Naturally, talk of any Romero film with the word DEAD in the title must acknowledge the gore factor. While there are a few effects sequences that would certainly have an audience cheering and hooting, they seem far more forced and secondary to the storyline than ever before. It almost feels like Romero wanted to make a straight thriller but felt obligated to add the gore scenes, which, in comparison to either version of DAWN or DAY, aren't all that gory. Plus, in this day of CGI the site of a zombie's head melting from an acid bath doesn't have the same appeal as DAY's old school gut munchings. (One hospital scene in DIARY even repeats a classic DAY effect, with about 1/10th the impact.)

With DIARY coming on the heels of duds like LAND and the almost unwatchable BRUISER, one wonders how much more Romero has left in the tank. The film's desperate attempts at social relevance fall as flat as most of the performances and a handful of plot elements are so ham-fistedly telegraphed as to be rendered meaningless. While the possibility that Romero's well has run dry won't deter me from seeing the recently-announced sixth installment of the DEAD series, his output of late certainly dampens my enthusiasm.

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