It matters not a whit that Diary of the Dead is a dreadful movie: its themes are easily discernable, and thus it has been subject to high-end critical cooing. “One of the most revealing and fascinating critiques of image-making since Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom” pants Glenn Kenny; “sociocultural critique comes alive when it sinks its teeth— literally—into human viscera,” insists Nathan Lee in The Village Voice. Undoubtedly, this is a movie About Something, as its characters—film students working on a class project who stumble, cameras in hand, into a zombie outbreak—continually remind us. Pity the poor, unknown (and thus utterly pliable) young actors asked to put their mouths around George A. Romero’s impassioned but dead-obvious thematics. “In addition to telling the truth, I am trying to scare you,” intones Debra (Michelle Morgan), pulling double duty as the Final Girl and after-the-fact narrator. Hang on to your hats, kids, here comes some edu-tainment! The conceit, by the way, is that we’re watching a rough assembly Debra has compiled out of footage shot by her late boyfriend Jason (Josh Close) during the group’s backroads odyssey through the apocalypse, with sound effects and bargain-basement music added for effect—so that future generations can experience reality as a crappy horror movie.
We’ll get to the idea of truth-telling in a moment, but it’s important to note that not for a second is Diary of the Dead scary: Romero’s dubious, self-willed transformation from honest shlockmeister to genre godhead/sociologist has eroded his talent for effectively creepy set pieces. There has been talk about the director’s expert use of space, as from Lee, again, “the movie is vividly grounded in place: the institutional banality of university housing and deserted hospitals…the cluttered, shadow-strewn warehouse hideout where the kids meet up with a radicalized band of black survivors…” Even leaving aside the obvious rebuttals—these are the sorts of places where George can afford to shoot—nearly every scene has the same deadening rhythm regardless of setting: a static shot of nothing in particular is interrupted by a bobbing movement, revealing zombies lumbering towards the lens. Occasionally, they bite someone. Adding to the problem is that bloodletting looks pretty silly in this particular visual context: raw-realism and Resident Evil-style digital gore effects don’t mix.
Neither do the acts of frightening and pandering. Night of the Living Dead (1968) deserves its place in film history not because of what it’s not (a pointed, intentional Vietnam allegory) but rather for what it is (an effectively nightmarish thriller); this most superfluous of sequels falls in for scorn for precisely the same reason. Diary of the Dead wears its subversions on its sleeve, bluntly inventorying a host of topical maladies— government obfuscation, Internet-era sensory overload, the narcissism of MySpace culture—and nudging us at every turn to ensure that we get the point, and appreciate the effort. This movie about the distancing effects of television—Josh is routinely excoriated by his gradually dwindling posse for shooting every step of their ordeal—revels in its remove. In lieu of actual excitement, Romero offers Scream-style deconstruction, like we’re not ten years past being sick of it. The film opens with a sub-Kevin-Williamson vignette in which Jason, shooting a zombie movie in the woods, chews out a faux-undead actor for lumbering too quickly, and is in turn bitched out by his blonde leading lady (Amy Lalonde) for saddling her with a clichéd damsel-in-distress part (the shoe-losing particulars of which hearken with arm-punching subtlety back to Judith O’Dea in that Pittsburgh graveyard 40 years ago).
Anyone with a brain that hasn’t been eaten out knows from the hint-hint dialogue that this scenario is going to replay itself later on, and sure enough, about 80 minutes of screen time later, Blondie —her costume unchanged after 24 hours spent in the company of brain-eaters and, this being a Romero film, nasty US soldiers and stoic, resolute, powerful black men—ends up getting chased by the same guy, now authentically undead, with the same director screaming directions from behind his camera. And wouldn’t you know it: she actually loses her shoes! The self-congratulation coagulates like blood from a tapped vein. When Romero makes a cameo as a clueless police chief blathering on television about the zombie crisis, his cool-grandpa visage is endearing enough to briefly put us back on his side, but it’s that same need to be loved by his core constituency (as if that’s especially hard, given the zombie-like cult of personality that tends to grow up around such filmmakers) that scuttles the project. The director’s wariness of new technology—it’s no accident that the one totally heroic character in the film is Amish— clashes with his desire to use it; it’s arguable that this dissonance is intentional, but given the confused nature of his commentary (obsessively filtering everything through the camera eye = bad; also bad: blogs) Romero doesn’t earn the benefit of the doubt.
“Shoot me,” croaks our ethically challenged-yet-pointedly-identifiable documentarian/doomed Romero surrogate after his insatiable desire to get everything on film results in his being fatally bitten—a force-five double entendre that elicited groans from an opening-day audience. I can’t report if the film’s admirers met said bullshit with appreciative silence (my guess: yes) or if they managed to sustain titters during the final scene, which earns the distinction of being the worst thing Romero (or possibly anyone else) has ever filmed. The footage, gleaned within the film’s diegesis, from that repository of depravity called the Internet, features a pair of good ol’ boys, feeling fine at the end of the world as they know it, stringing up a female zombie and shooting her in the head with a twelve-gauge for kicks. “Are we even worth saving?” asks our narrator, aghast at this random act of zombie torture; when the bottom half of the woman’s face falls off dislodging a single, poignant zombie tear, it’s enough to wet the driest eye.
How unfortunate that Diary of the Dead has routinely been used as a club against Brian De Palma’s conceptually similar Redacted, a movie with comparable flaws (not to mention a few all its own) that nevertheless succeeds in doing what Romero’s surrogates spend a lot of time sputtering about: demonstrating that our ability to see will always outstrip our capacity to know. (The last shot is one of the best things De Palma has ever filmed). And it’s specific: where Romero lazily and profitably plugs his shambling bogeymen into various hot-button concerns, Redacted focuses on a single, documented incident. And it’s authentically confrontational—recall the incensed hipster-blogger girl, with her string-‘em-up rhetoric and zeig heil salute, skewering the intemperate Left as neatly as the fake French doc-within-the-fake-doc, Barrage, sends up sanctimonious wartime reportage. And, darn it, it’s better acted. (But then so is the similarly conceived and lingeringly icky Cloverfield).
The difference is that at this point, De Palma isn’t out to curry favour with anyone. He even managed, bless him, to make a movie that even Armond White hated. The generally admiring notices for Diary of the Dead (“a zombie movie by way of Beckett and Brecht,” adds Scott Foundas) suggest two things: that Romero’s cache of goodwill is deep indeed and, more worryingly, that recognition of a movie’s operations is/should be tantamount to appreciation. At least Land of the Dead (2005) was the work of someone whose satirical impulses were bound up in the attempt to tell a story and to scare (rather than harangue) his audience; it even managed a few moments of purple-pulp poetry (the zombies coming out of the water; the skateboarder; the fireworks display). Diary of the Dead isn’t going to endure—like the nominally better and now forgotten 28 Weeks Later, it’s a movie-of-the-moment in every sense—but the reviews will remain online in perpetuity. Seems that the Internet is a scary, confusing place after all.