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Reviews

Diary of the Dead

The black militia men, black men with lots of guns, are not about to be isolated and killed by vigilantes like Ben (Duane Jones).


Diary of the Dead

Director: George A. Romero
Cast: Michelle Morgan, Josh Close, Philip Riccio, Scott Wentworth, Joe Dinicol, Amy Ciupak Lalonde, Tatiana Maslany, Megan Park, Shawn Roberts, Alan Van Sprang, Chris Violette
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Weinstein Company
First date: 2007
UK Release Date: 2008-03-07 (Limited release)
US Release Date: 2008-02-15 (Limited release)
Website
Trailer

The first images in Diary of the Dead are simultaneously familiar and new. A news crew is shooting a crime scene, camera careening between bodies on gurneys, as they're removed from an apartment building. "Some guy," notes a uniform on scene, "Shoots his wife and kid, then eats them." The story gets more complicated when it's revealed the killer has "no fucking papers," the immigrant family now presenting the threat of illegals and borders crossed. And then something else happens. "Jesus, I don't believe this," spurts the cameraman. "She's still moving!" The frame swings over to the woman, lurching from beneath her bloody white sheet to grab the medical tech who's trying to load her onto the ambulance. Mauling, biting, grabbing: she's a monster.

And so it begins again, the incursion of the living dead upon the rest of us, only this time, captured moment by moment by first person cameras. Yet again, George Romero reinvents the franchise, working through some recurring themes (race anxieties, family tensions) and a frankly topical one, the drive to self-document, to upload, to find truth in pictures. As the news cameraman watches his girl reporter ravaged before his lens, he calls out from off-screen, "This can't be fucking happening!" As counterpoint comes a voiceover, by Debra (Michelle Morgan), full-time film student at University of Pittsburgh, sometimes dedicated girlfriend to Jason (Josh Close). "Most of it was bullshit," she says of the footage of that attack and others that began to fill up the net. "None of it was useful. Now it's 24/7."

Her own footage, or more precisely, Jason's footage, begins with the horror movie he's doing for class, "The Death of Death." Corny in all the expected ways, it features a girl in white nightgown and distress (Tracy, played by Amy Ciupak Lalonde), a monster in mummy-bandages (Philip Riccio as Ridley). As he runs across the screen, director Jason calls cut. "How many times have I told you? Dead things don't move that fast."

It's a funny joke, a good-natured nod to the newfangled infected cannibals of 28 Days Later as much as a find look-back at the zombies of the Living Dead, all lumbering and awkward and bloody-corpselike, despite their revivification. Real zombies, asserts the gag, are slow, but hat doesn’t make them any less horrific: their menace is precisely their implacable sluggishness. They never stop.... unless of course, you shoot 'em in the head.

Following the same basic plot of the other Living Dead movies, Diary here introduces a zombie who alarms the film students into their own sort of speed. After a brief debate over where to go or what to do when facing what seems a spreading catastrophe, they split into two groups, the actor who believes in his privilege (and brings along a pretty PA to hide out at his parents' mansion) and the rest of the crew, more skeptical by dint of their need to labor for money. These become the core group, making their way across the killing-and-eating fields in a Winnebago. Smartly, the first-person cameras continually compound the problem, as some of the student filmmakers feel obligated to disseminate all available information, terrible and uncensored imagery that constitutes a kind of "truth." Upset when they learn that cable and local news and the government "was lying to us," the 20somethings are moved to show the world "what's happened." As Debra notes in her voiceover (which she explains she has applied later, along with a music soundtrack she describes as a means to "scare you," for her imagined viewers, who are indeed you), to counter the lies released by mainstream media and the government. "It was all over the news," she says, "All over the web, but no one really knew what was going on."

The diffusion of information, the glut of opinions and aspersions cast by bloggers and other self-described journalists, becomes a central target in Diary, which assumes its own recorders are truth-tellers, though you may be inclined to wonder as they argue and at least some of them cheat one another. While the movie includes a couple of preemptive explanations as to why the students film themselves and the monsters who attack them so incessantly (à la Blair Witch or Cloverfield), for the most part it takes its protagonists/filmmakers at their words. When Jason insists on shooting, recharging his battery, or taking time to upload, Debra argues with him -- at first. "The camera's the whole thing," he protests. No, she just about stamps her foot, "Getting help is the whole thing."

The plucky crew and their faculty advisor/war veteran (Scott Wentworth) find plenty of camera-ready material as they make their way from devastation to devastation -- a hospital where dead doctors are eating their patients, a farmhouse where an Amish man finds a particularly gruesome for his scythe, a suburban home where spouses eat one another. Indeed, as the monsters are increasingly revealed to be the very friends and families the students seek to rejoin, the difference between "us" and them turns inside out. "It used to be us against us," laments Jason. "Now it's us against them, except they're us."

As anyone who's seen a Living Dead movie knows, this is an inevitable realization, and doesn’t necessarily help anyone to survive. Here the problem of "us" versus "us" is compounded by surveillance technology and the persuasiveness of imagery. "Somebody might be watching us right now," worries Tony (Shawn Roberts), once they're ensconced at a home complete with panic room and security cameras. The film picks up the theme when Debra explains her decision to incorporate into her "final cut" a series of images from multiple security cameras (grainy digital, herky jerky), showing murder after murder by walking deads. You don't imagine they'll be "watching" anytime soon (they're far more primitive than the thoughtful zombie leader of Land of the Dead), but the essential anxiety -- of being consumed by viewers -- is hard to shake.

The students' most compelling encounter involves a group of black militia men, determined to hold their ground and keep faith with one another. Their expertise is undisputed (when one student suggests they may get help from the National Guard, the leader announces, "I am the National Guard"), and their moral ground looks firm. "We got the power for the first time in our lives," the leader explains to the bewildered group of white university students. "We got the power, everyone else left, all the folks without suntans."

Repeatedly, Diary finds ways to locate its old plot in a new time. As in 1968's Night of the Living Dead, the panic over the zombies triggers a realignment of communities according to visible differences. The black militia men, black men with lots of guns, are not about to be isolated and killed by cracker vigilantes like Ben (Duane Jones). They mean to survive, and though Diary leaves them before you see their fate, that very move -- to leave them -- speaks to the film's point about difference and fear and the ways that image-makers decide on who's in the images. When one of the militia men admires Debra, noting their similar toughness and determination, it's a brief bit of bonding and mutual admiration that goes a long way in a film that is so suffused with brutality and betrayal.

8
Culture

Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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