Diary of the Dead

Amy Lalonde and Chris Violette in Diary of the Dead (dir. George Romero, 2007).

For the first third or so of Diary of the Dead,, I was having a really hard time getting past Romero's determinedly low-budget mentality. I don't think we're talking entirely about an "aesthetic" here: the man is just plain not very sophisticated in about ninety percent of the ways one must be sophisticated in order to create a competent film. But then there's that other ten percent, which he owns.

Land of the Dead (2005) was a disappointment, in part because Romero's DIY ethic (that's what it is--an ethic rather than, or above and beyond, an aesthetic) got spludged up kerplunk against a slightly larger budget and some name actors (Dennis Hopper, John Leguizamo). Also, the story was overly ambitious: a dystopic future Road Warrior style city-fortress premise that couldn't sustain its would-be epic weight. In Diary, we go back to square one, when the dead first start coming back to life, and everything is seen through the lens of a camera in the hands of a group of student filmmakers (who are trying to shoot a mummy movie[!] when the catastrophe starts).

The first hurdle is to accept that the film is not very scary. If you can live with that, it's fascinating to watch Romero fiddle with his topos like an equation he can't quite bring to solution, revisiting the old parts of the formula almost obsessively: the newscasts declaring that the dead have returned to life and are devouring the bodies of the living; the nightmarish encounters with undead family members; the bands of trigger-happy rednecks making sport out of the crisis, and so on. As commentary on national and global unrest, it's bald, blatant stuff, ground that has been more effectively covered countless times in the last few years by younger, fiercer filmmakers. In fact, all Romero really has going for him is a type of ramshackle soul, a faith in character (even in the absence of little things like believable dialogue), and a knack for isolated images of shocking eeriness--like the "human goldfish bowl."

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