Friday, February 15, 2008

"George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead" -- * *

Look, I love and admire George Romero. The man is a creative genius, and beyond just founding the principles and thematic heft of zombie films, he's really stuck to his guns as a filmmaker over the years. So, it's with a heavy heart that I've got to report that his latest entry in the genre he created, "Diary of the Dead," is mostly a slog to sit through. I really wanted to like this movie-- I was even one of the minimal defenders of his last, "Land of the Dead"-- but some interesting ideas aside, there's not a whole lot to recommend about it.

Though actually made first, the release of "Diary" has been timed to capitalize on the recent success of "Cloverfield," as the conceit is fairly similar. Supposedly compiled of found footage (though our narrator tells us she's cut it together and inserted music to make it scarier), "Diary," given the faux-title "The Death of Death," tells of the aftermath of a recent outbreak of the dead returning to life and the group of UPitt students that document it as they seek escape. Throughout, Romero hammers home his points about our morbid fascination with the horrific, particularly via the internet (he apparently has a big vendetta against blogs). These themes are also currently being explored in "Untraceable," albeit in a much stupider, but similarly not very interesting, manner.

Romero repeatedly grasps for resonance with references to the political ("The President" is mentioned being at his ranch) and the technological (blogs are brought up seemingly dozens of times), but there aren't a whole lot of fresh ideas here. The questions of "Are we worth saving?" and "what have we become?" are valid ones to be asked, but they're also ones that have been asked again and again, and in much more interesting ways than this. Despite the "Cloverfield" and "Blair Witch" connections, the most apt comparison would be to Brian DePalma's recent political screed, "Redacted." Both films have a 'found footage' conceit, both are borne out of passionate societal/political beliefs, and both suffer from very bad amateur actors and too scattershot a focus.

So, if "Diary"is a thematic failure, the question left is, "well, is it scary, or entertaining in the least?" Sadly, it falls way short on both counts. There seems to be a minimal effort made to induce any sort of tension, and even feeble attempts to creat "jump" moments don't succeed in utilizing the most bottom-of-the-barrel scare methods. It's difficult to imagine anyone being unsettled, disturbed or even jumping at anything contained in here. But what really kills the movie more than anything else is the positively deadly pacing. The movie plods on and on, making its 90-minute running time seem literally twice that. Romero has never been particularly good at pacing his films, but it's never been mre necessary than here for an editor to have stepped in. In the first half of the film, the students' drive in a trailer to a hospital seems to go on forever. And it pains me to say this about a Romero film, but near the end, when a character utters, "There's gonna be more," it seems more like a threat than a promise.

What makes the film at least watchable, though, is Romero's trademark innovation and creativity. A deaf, Amish character Samuel shows up midway through, and threatens to singlehandedly save the movie with his ingenuity and humor, but he's out of the picture fairly quickly. Otherwise, the zombie effects and kills are really the show here, and what linger most in the memory. While not state-of-the-art, the effects of what happen to the zombies when they meet their (second) end look fairly realistic and create the desired effect. The kills themselves are generally creative and amusing enough to make one wish there were more of them; one involving defibrillators put to a zombie's head, causing the eyeballs to liquify and explode, is particularly awesome.

Opening with a TV crew telling an ambulance to move because it's blocking the camera's shot, George A. Romero's "Diary of the Dead" gets its points across fairly quickly, and then proceeds to make them over and over again, with an increasingly lugubrious pace. Romero has meant so much to horror, and film in general, that I'm genuinely glad he's still getting an opportunity to make films, and is still trying to say things with his art, rather than settling into a life's-winding-down state of apathy. That said, next time out, I hope he takes the time to hone his script a little more, hire more experienced actors, and employ a less timid editor.

"Diary of the Dead" opens today in 42 theaters in the following markets: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Denver, Boston, Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, Atlanta, Seattle, Miami, Orlando, Portland, Detroit, San Diego, Las Vegas, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Raleigh, Kansas City, and Washington DC.


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