Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Dear "Diary of the Dead"....

[I should now apostrophize the movie, but cannot bring myself to.]

I can't believe it but I really didn't mind "Diary of the Dead" one bit. After reading a slew of poor-to-middling reviews, I was prepared to hate it. (Final Girl loathed it; there's a surprisingly charitable review on Slate.) It certainly isn't scary, and most of the characters are insufferable, and it hammers its point home to the point of ridiculousness -- but it's never quite boring. A group of film students are making a low-budget mummy movie in the woods, pausing for some "Scream"-esque commentary about horror movie tropes: "How come the girl being chased always falls down?" and "The monster needs to shamble, not run." They hear news broadcasts about the dead returning to life to attack the living, and decide to go check on their friends and families. Eventually, most of them are piled in a Winnebago, heading for the home of heroine Debra, who is apparently the only one interested in making sure her parents are all right.

Along the way they have many zombie-related adventures, all of which are filmed by Debra's boyfriend Jason (or possibly Josh -- I forget), because he's very insistent that everything needs to be captured for posterity: He says some Cloverfieldesque things like "People need to know what's going on." His stubbornness leads to some pretty goofy scenes: Jason won't stop filming to help his friends when they're attacked by zombies, he never expresses a whole lot of surprise at the sight of one, and at one point he risks great physical danger by refusing to move away from the wall plug where his camera is charging. Ostensibly because they're film students, the footage never looks very raw, and that combines with the ridiculousness of Jason's behavior to really, really strain the premise of this film. And it takes some doing to strain the premise of a zombie film. You never quite buy that all this is going on, which is very unfortunate.

Still... there are some good zombie set pieces. I would sit through the whole thing again just for the marvelous Amish sequence. And the zombies look fantastic: we're a long way from Romero's "Dawn of the Dead" with the blue Play-Doh makeup. (We're also a long way from the ridiculously elaborate special effects of "Land of the Dead," with the carefully exposed teeth and the spinal-column removal and all that. These are just good, plain zombies.) I'm on the fence about the zombie-clown sequence, and a fragment toward the end involving an elderly couple is just pointlessly vicious.

Romero breaks up what little action and narrative he has with social commentary, and it's exhausting. I like his point, though: Unlike in "Cloverfield," he refuses to let the cameraman off the hook; if there's a villain in his story, it's Jason (or Josh). He's saying, I think, that the privileged youth of today are so used to absorbing information secondhand that when confronted with something challenging, they can only cope with it secondhand. They're incapable of getting off their asses and dealing with it. The kids in this movie are more doomed than the families in "Night of the Living Dead" or the cops & news crew in "Dawn of the Dead," because at least those people were capable of boarding up windows or flying a helicopter. All these kids can do is film, look for a place with an Internet connection, and upload to YouTube. When the zombies come, please, give me FlyBoy and his helicopter any day.

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