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George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead (2008)

We’ve truly become Marshall McLuhan’s worst nightmare. For us, reality television and the media is everything – nurturer, educator, entertainer, opinion former, purveyor of history and definer of myth. We no longer think for ourselves. Instead, we ‘blog’ to let the world in on our thought processes, falsely believing that the audience is doing anything more than laughing under their laptop. The news is no longer the truth – YouTube processes the raw footage editorial control and journalistic ethics censor. Of course, there’s a legitimate reason for such strictures, but in the outlaw lands of the Internet, it’s unimportant. In the World Wild Web West, it’s vigilante justice with a MySpace page.

As he has done with each of his previous Dead installments, horror maestro George Romero has used the current political and/or social clime (and his views on same) as a subtext to his zombie terrors. In Night of the Living Dead, it was the unraveling revolution of the ’60s. Dawn of the Dead commented on the rampant consumerism of the Me Decade. The ’80s got Day of the Dead, as a conservative militarized nation trying to take back Morning in America. Land of the Dead gave the ’90s boom and ’00s bust a heinous “haves vs. have nots” sheen. Now comes his latest masterpiece, a self-proclaimed reboot aimed squarely at the nu-tech age, and it’s just as brilliant.

Diary of the Dead follows the adventures of Jason Creed, his girlfriend Beth, their film class professor, and a group of their college buddies during the shooting of an independent fright flick. As they set up sequences in a deserted wood, they get word that the world as they know it is slowly disintegrating. The dead are returning to life…and feasting on the living. As the standard order breaks down and collapses, they hop into their rundown production RV and head out on the highway. As the others try to make sense of their situation, Jason keeps his camera rolling – the better to document, as he puts it, “The Death of Death”.

Leave it to Romero to reinvent himself in such a sharp, sarcastic manner. Clearly concerned about the plugged-in yet clue-less nature of the supposedly media-savvy, his latest effort ravages the ‘www’ terrain while reminding viewers that no one gives up the gruesome gore gags better. Diary of the Dead (new to DVD from Genius Products, the Weinstein Company, and their Dimension Extreme Division) is an old timer’s take on the way communication has cannibalized itself, how as one character puts it, “nothing is real until you see it onscreen”. By utilizing the soon to be tired first person POV that drove both The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, he channels the inherent anxiety of such a limited scope. But unlike those other films, he finds a way to add something salient to the scares.

Romero is clearly a master of allegorical macabre. Sometimes, his riffs are obvious (zombies stumbling through a shopping mall). At other instances, like throughout most of Diary, he’s devious with his metaphors. There are nods to every other living dead movie he’s made, from the newscast as narrative drive of the action (like Night) to the supposed safe fortress of unimaginable wealth and material leisure (as in Dawn). We get bastard military men (ala Day) and a true sense of the disenfranchised and downtrodden being blamed and corded off from the rest of scared suburbia (like Land). In fact, Romero appears to be coalescing all that came before, suggesting that this is the real horror tale he wanted to tell.

There’s another level here that’s equally effective. As a director, Romero keeps his cast off kilter, making them appear amateurish or brash because…well, that’s what these kids really would be, given the circumstances. Turning them into well-honed thespians with a sharp handle on exactly what to do would ruin the ‘you are there’ dynamic. Sure, this is scripted, avoiding the expletive filled pointlessness of Witch‘s weak kneed trio. But Romero expertly captures the aimlessness of young people wittingly out of touch with true reality. Everything they know, everything they do, is filtered through the instant gratification of cell phones, PDAs, laptops, Wi-Fi, satellite television, and endless hours surfing the ‘Net. They practically speak in text messages. Even worse, our hero never helps the people he films. Even as they are threatened, he uses the detachment of the camera to keep from getting directly involved.

There is an additional caustic undercurrent championed here, a personal one Romero refers to constantly in the DVD extras. As part of his commentary track, he leans into the problems with progress, how it renders individuals unable to solve their own problems. Similarly, his interview segments as part of the making-of material come off as thoughtful and quite insightful. This is clearly a film about thinking for oneself, about avoiding the inevitable terror clichés to survive in a world gone wicked. Naturally, characters do the kind of things that end up causing them concern. They’ve been programmed, brainwashed by a social setup of zero accountability to believe in such slop psychology.

That this all happens within the context of a ripping creepshow cements why Romero remains a god. Between the clever kills, the ample arterial spray, and the relentless suspense (the single lens viewpoint makes us feel like part of the refugees), we are treated to a corrosive combination of blood and bleakness. Fans have long felt that Day of the Dead was the director’s darkest vision. Diary will more than likely usurp that underground angst fest. The effects work here by Greg Nicotero and KNB (along with additional help from SPIN VFX) is amazing. Heads are split open, melted with acid, and parted at the jawline. The images are startling, reminding us of how powerful onscreen violence can be when handled with artistry and appreciation.

Considering his age (he’ll be 68 this year) and the number of years he’s been making films (2008 marks the 40th anniversary of Night of the Living Dead), it’s fascinating how George Romero can continue to bring fresh, invigorating ideas to the genre he inadvertently created four decades ago. Even better, he keeps pushing the envelope of expression, incorporating as many current controversies and concerns into his plot points as possible. It will be interesting to see if Romero again returns to this material, especially within the context of the ongoing War in Iraq and the contemporary climate of fear we now live in (there are some minor hints of same in Diary). Like any great virtuoso, the Godfather of the zombie film has more to offer than a series of flesh-feasting set pieces. Diary of the Dead is a sparkling reflection of our troubled times – and the images in the everpresent viewfinder are not pretty.

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