Friday, February 15, 2008

Maybe You'll Wake Up

The crowd at the Egyptian the other night for the American Cinematheque’s preview of DIARY OF THE DEAD had just the right vibe to it, filled with people who weren’t just excited to see George Romero’s new film—it was as if their presence was part of their own commitment to cinema and their love for it. Am I getting a little lofty here? Maybe. But this is George Romero I’m talking about. He’s earned all the respect he gets.

His latest zombie installment has already been dubbed “CLOVERFIELD with zombies” which is sort of, loosely, right but only in a surface way. CLOVERFIELD takes the found-footage approach to its subject with lots of viral stuff on the side to add greater mythos to what’s on screen. The zombie mythos is the Romero universe has been well-established by this point—and even if this is a reboot, there’s a familiarity to certain things—but more importantly is that the “film” that we’re viewing in DIARY OF THE DEAD has already been fully edited and scored. The film we see is the film that the characters have made, allowing what Romero is doing to explore what the characters are seeing, what we’re seeing, what is real and if certain things are only real if they get filmed. Even if this basic idea has been used at other times, such as in MAN BITES DOG, Romero approaches what this is in the year 2008 and how it affects the Youtube and Myspace generation. “"If it didn't happen on camera, it didn't happen, right?” asks one character when it’s clear someone isn’t going to put that camera down. Why are they there, if not to film this? And if they’re not filming this, is it really happening? How the line has been blurred between what is real and what is manipulated is made evident from the very first shot, even before any zombies make their appearance.

DIARY OF THE DEAD never quite reaches the heights of its ambitions and certainly isn’t Romero’s ultimate statement on the themes that he has been exploring all these years, but how could it be? After all, he made that movie thirty years ago and called it DAWN OF THE DEAD. The laconic dialogue which paid lip service to theme (“Why do they come here?” “Some kind of instinct. Memory, of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.”) is expanded here to allow for lengthy narration right off the bat. Essentially, it flat-out states the theme to us throughout the entire movie going over the same points a few times too many. It bugged me while viewing it, it bugs me now, though I do have to acknowledge that any college-age students actually putting together this “documentary” probably would be over-stating their theme in such a fashion. So is the film genuinely acknowledging how the characters have over-written their film? I’m not so sure about that. The actors, all unknowns, are problematic but I don’t have as much of an issue with them as others seem to. If anything they lack the real-world weight and likability that the older leads of DAWN had (one of the things that make it so rewatchable) and even if the J.J. Abrams-sanctioned leads of CLOVERFIELD are too good-looking, those actors still manage to make a definite impression, more than they ever do here.

One film that unexpectedly came to mind while thinking about DIARY afterwards was last fall’s LIONS FOR LAMBS, which I saw but did not write about. Both films are the work of left-leaning directors (Robert Redford with the other film) in the vicinity of seventy obviously trying to get a message across to the younger generation. Except in the case of LIONS the director seems to be earnestly crying out, “Would you please just listen to me about this, it’s important!” (which it is, but that’s another can of tuna) while in the case of DIARY Romero seems to be spitting out, “Take a look at this. What do you think about that? What the fuck are you going to do about that? Are you going to fucking wake up?” And maybe chewing on a cigar while he says that. DIARY OF THE DEAD has its problems, but I have to admit that I was constantly engaged by it. Different as it is in scale and intent from LAND OF THE DEAD, I don’t know if it’s significantly better or worse, but it’s hard not to notice the added energy that it seems to have. Numerous scenes with the zombies give up the kicks we’d want from them, even if there is more CGI than would be desired--there's also a few deserved swipes at recent films which have contained fast-moving zombies.

If anything, some of the film simply feels like we’ve gone there before. "It used to be us against us; now it's us against them ... except, they are us," is stated in the narration at one point. It’s a good line, but maybe a little too close to the less-wordy “We’re them…and they’re us,” stated by Patricia Tallman at the end of Tom Savini’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD remake in 1990, a line scripted by Romero himself. There’s little question that DIARY is a more successful film than that was, but it’s an indication that while the world around the film’s events has changed, enough has remained the same that to the point that there’s a lot here which has been said before. Still, Romero’s passion in what he wants to say is so vivid that it’s hard not to get a thrill out of it.

The sold-out screening--with Adrienne Barbeau among those in attendance--was immediately followed by a too-short, completely aimless and extremely enjoyable discussion with Romero and John Landis, who was as excitable as expected—leave it to Landis to reference MEDIUM COOL in this context. And, considering it was shot the year NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was released, it was probably a more appropriate comparison than he realized. Very little was revealed during the talk that Romero hasn’t already discussed in some of the numerous interviews he’s given lately, but his enthusiasm for this film that he shot in only 20 (!) days was obvious. It’s hard not to think that this experience has left him more inspired to continue working than maybe he has been in decades. Here’s hoping that there’s more coming from him. DIARY OF THE DEAD is definitely flawed, but the feeling of individuality that he’s long been known for is evident in the new film and that could just be enough.


Tanner said...

I was at that show too. It was a good crowd, and much bigger than I'd expected. It looked about sold out, which caught me off guard. Your review of the film pretty much echoes my feelings exactly. It was thoroughly enjoyable and had smart things to say, but at the same time it hit us over the head with those smart things and seemed to be saying the same ones again and again, then adding a few more into the mix at the end to muddle things further. But it was still good. I consider myself a Romero fan, so I don't like that I didn't seem to love the movie quite as much as the majority of mainstream critics. Maybe that crowd wasn't the right environment after all! Maybe I should see it again...

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

I don't know if that many mainstream critics went crazy for it but even so I think you probably saw it with the right crowd. And I've talked with a few people who were fairly negative about it so I'm glad to hear from someone else who enjoyed it. Thanks for checking in!