Sunday, February 17, 2008

Diary of the Dead

I was pretty sure this was going to happen, where I'd have trouble putting down my thoughts about Diary of the Dead. I wanted to do it right and almost bought a pen and a memo pad on the way to the theater, but decided against it. I should note first that it's incredibly bizarre to me that a movie made by the guy who essentially invented the socially conscious zombie movie is only playing in one theater in Chicago, and that this theater is somewhat inconveniently located, especially when the CTA has decided that for what seems like the fiftieth straight week, no trains are running northbound through the subways and it took an hour to get home. Again. Because the management focuses more on finding new places to renovate slowly and poorly while contemplating shiny new cars and ignoring the fact that they're talking about spending insane amounts of money while claiming that they're nearly bankrupt instead of, you know, making the trains run on time.

But this isn't about the trains.

This is about zombies, which are much more interesting and reliable. And occasionally on fire.

Oh, and I've got no training in film theory, so I'm just going to go along with probably missing a bunch of technical things and mostly talk out of my ass. You'll get over it.

First, a short review of what actually happens. I'm going to presume that if you're reading this, you will be doing so with the understanding that there may be spoilers. I'll try to keep it minimal, but if you are really excited about seeing this and don't want any plot points revealed, stop reading. There's one very near the end, but my complaint with the bit I'm analyzing is that it's so obvious from the outset of the film, so you can make up your mind as to whether or not you think that's enough of a spoiler for you not to read this. So yes. Diary of the Dead is presented almost entirely as "The Death of Death", a documentation of the events surrounding the beginning of a zombie outbreak made by a film student at the University of Pittsburgh (which answers my previous question as to whether this would have any ties to the city). He and a group of students that are filming a socially-conscious mummy movie in the woods near Pittsburgh (a not-at-all subtle nod towards Night of the Living Dead) decide to capture what's happening on film after hearing a radio broadcast that claims that the dead are rising and attacking the living. Most of the rest of the movie involves an incredibly long road-trip from Pittsburgh to Scranton by way of Winnebago which one of the students just happened to have in Oakland, apparently and how they deal with the problem that surrounds them. I'll get more into their specific actions later, but that's essentially all you need to understand what's going on here.

I said the other day that I was glad Romero was returning to the roots of the zombie outbreak and showing what happens at the beginning. I later realized that that's really the only place he really could have gone as far as pursuing a new direction in the chronology of the whole zombie outbreak scenario. He's already explored what happens in the middle of the outbreak (after the initial chaos, but before an actual response is formulated) in Dawn of the Dead, the military response to such an outbreak in Day of the Dead and the "zombies as the dominant species" in Land of the Dead. There isn’t anywhere really to go beyond that that doesn’t involve continually showing how the survivors are dealing with a prolonged zombie plague, and so it makes sense to “reboot” even if every other movie franchise there is has done the same thing recently. That said, I thought his depiction of the first few days was pretty solid. He addresses the issues uncertainty surrounding whether the people the protagonists kill are actually dead and the skepticism of a few of the group's members as to whether this is all actually happening, the stress this imparts upon the group, the film-within-a-film-maker's decision to try to make a documentary out of the situation and how this goes over with most of the people who just want to stay alive and the idea that they'll all have to adjust to living in a world where the undead are a constant threat. This, to my mind, is the most interesting part of the sequence of things that happen in most zombie movies, as the more it's clear that living humans are a besieged minority, the more it turns into a straight-up war movie.

What distinguished Romero's zombie films from the standard zombie horror has always been his ability at weaving bits of social satire throughout the plot. It's been more subtle at times (particularly in Night, which seems to me to be the purest horror movie of the series) and less so at others (addressing commercialism by sticking the movie in a shopping mall, for example). What I mean to say is that subtlety is not a sticking point for me. Sure, Dawn of the Dead is pretty explicit about what it's satirizing, but that's part of the reason I enjoyed it. With Diary, a lot of the social commentary is delivered through the voice-over of the girlfriend of the student who makes the film, often combined with a series of images that are intended to enhance the concept that an over-powerful government is spinning the reports of a zombie apocalypse (for unspecified reasons, presumably to decrease panic? I guess?) and that only through blogs and YouTube can the truth be disseminated. It comes across as something which has been tacked on and stated explicitly, rather than expressed through the narrative of the movie. Even in Dawn of the Dead, the parallels between the zombies and consumer culture and organized religions were expressed by isolating the protagonists for long stretches in a scenario where they had no material wants and then throwing Hari Krishna and nun zombies at them. There wasn't a voiceover telling you that the survivors got restless and realized that satisfying their needs by looting a JC Penney's wasn't enough. Unfortunately, that's the case for much of the voice-over for Diary. I'm not sure if there's a better way to do that if you want to make a point about media portrayal of disaster and the way the media and government work in general, but I'd have been more satisfied if it didn't feel tacked on at the end.

The reviewer for Slate criticized the movie for being "almost Luddite in its skepticism about the now-ubiquitous technology of information" which I don't think is necessarily a bad thing, though the constant references to YouTube and MySpace do get a bit tiresome and gave me the same feeling that I got from Live Free or Die Hard, that the person making the film is only vaguely familiar with what he's talking about and is trying too hard to relate to the younger viewer. (I should note that in saying that, I am in no way implying that Diary is as technologically ludicrous as Live Free or Die Hard. It's not. Everything that happens is actually pretty plausible. Except for the whole zombie apocalypse thing.) She further notes the inclusion of Samuel, a deaf Amish man as a hero as further commentary on the constant barrage of information and technology on the modern world, but this is exactly the kind of humor and satire that made me love Dawn. The scenes with Samuel, by the way, are easily the funniest of the movie and, while a bit confusing, rates as probably the best. The "corruption of those with power" scenes, such as the National Guard members stealing the supplies of the group at gunpoint also manage to make a salient point without having a voiceover, and I really wish that could have been more consistently what was going on throughout the movie.

As a zombie movie, you could do much worse. Many have done much worse. Romero sticks with his characteristic style of zombie, in that anyone who dies in a way that doesn't cause severe brain trauma reanimates (not just those who are bitten), that a zombie bite is fatal even if the bite itself, if received from another creature, would not have led to death, and zombies are slow, shambling creatures. He actually explicity states his preference for the slow undead by having the in-film director make reference to it, though he gives an explanation that differs from Romero's original rationale behind slow zombies. It's now "they'd snap their ankle off" rather than a misunderstanding of the phenomenon of rigor mortis, which is actually a worse explanation for me because it implies that the zombie is consciously choosing to move slowly. I've always been a fan of Romero's zombie more than the virus-ridden quick zombie of Boyle's 28 Days/Weeks Later because I think it ups the danger factor (by having anyone who dies reanimate, so that even seclusion in a group does not protect against the monster) and because a slow, lumbering mob that you know you should be able to get away from if it weren't for their sheer numbers scares me more as a thought experiment than ultra-fast zombies. Slow zombies, for me, carry with them a sort of brute-force determination that overwhelms because of their sheer numbers and the psychological terror of seeing someone related to the protagonist who has died and reanimated, but is more subtly a danger because they're not running at you screaming, but lumbering toward you looking for all the world like they person they were before becoming a zombie, which makes it much more difficult for the protagonist to go through with the whole killing thing. With a group of really fast zombies coming at you, it's really no different than if they were anything else that was fast and wanted to attack you. They could just as easily be angry tigers. There's no reason for them to be the reanimated dead, except that you'd become one if they got you, but that really isn't that terrifying to me, or any more terrifying than death. Romero's always been great at portraying the slow zombie as a terrifying creature, and Diary of the Dead is no different. He makes good use of the fact that the group is for some reason always wandering through the woods or stumbling through a darkened warehouse, though I wish he'd spent more time showing the claustrophobic nature of the Panic Room at Ridley's house near the end of the movie where those who have survived decide to "wait things out" or explain just how the hell the survivors edited the footage together and distributed it.

That was actually one of the few things that bothered me about the movie that I think would have been ok if I weren't from western Pennsylvania. Some of the errors confused me, as Romero, though born in NYC, has spent a large part of his life in the Pittsburgh area. So when it's taking two days to get to Scranton from downtown Pittsburgh (even through back roads, that's maybe an eight hour trip), somehow forgetting to drop the character that's going to Harrisburg off on the way (which is stated as the plan), claiming that a member's family should have beaten them back to Scranton (despite the fact that they were somewhere in West Virginia, which is a larger distance no matter how you slice it than Pittsburgh to Scranton) and that West Virginia is claimed to be "one hundred miles" away from northeast PA (it's more like four hundred). I just don't really understand the nature of those screw ups.

And it still bugs me that they had a Winnebago in Oakland somewhere. I've just... where do you park that?

Overall, I enjoyed it, but as I thought would be the case before I went, it can’t hold a candle to his first two. It’s an interesting movie, if a bit blunt with its points at times, and I’ll always prefer a Romero zombie movie to a lot of horror movies. I’d have liked the voiceover to have a bit less of an “added on” feel, though I suppose that makes sense with the movie’s premise and think that there were a few parts where it could have been a bit less predictable (Spoiler: If the voiceover is done entirely by the girlfriend of the person making the film rather than the person making the film, chances are he’s going to bite it at some point, probably near then end). It successfully mixes horror with the occasional comic relief (“Hello, I’m Samuel” and “I’m stealing shit.” spring to mind), while eliciting laughs in some places where they’re not intended (running over zombies on the way out of Pittsburgh, before it’s been established to the group’s satisfaction that they’re actually the living dead is intended to show the level of stress this causes, particularly between the driver of the Winnebago and the strongest skeptic of the group, but comes across as somewhat goofy as the zombies get knocked over like they’re pedestrians in Grand Theft Auto). I’d recommend going to see it, but try not to hold it to the unreachable standard of Romero’s earliest zombie films. I have a feeling for most of you, that shouldn’t really be an issue, so go to the theater if there’s one in the state that’s playing it and enjoy the carnage.

Oh, one more thing. There was one zombie in the scene where they're leaving the Amish barn that just didn't look like he was committed to the whole shambling thing. That annoyed me, and that actor should get no more work as an extra in zombie movies.

I think that’s easily the longest thing I’ve ever written for Murphspot.

1 comment:

Ben said...

I have only been reading your blog for a few months but I think this is quintessential murphspot:
"Everything that happens is actually pretty plausible. Except for the whole zombie apocalypse thing."
If I had to describe your blog / sense of humor in one phrase I would use this quote. It is truly priceless