It's been 40 years since the reanimated corpses of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead first staggered their way through a Pittsburgh cemetery and into the Zeitgeist. Romero's debut feature itself seemed to rise up out of a cultural graveyard populated by the corpses of the decade's slain political leaders and Vietnam soldiers — and well before itcame to its startling final image of the movie's black hero being gunned down by trigger-happy good ol' boys, it was clear that Romero was giving his audience just as much to chew over as his flesh-eating undead. We — and he — have never gone hungry again. Arriving at the zenith of the indoor-shopping-mall era, Romero's 1978 Dawn of the Dead neatly skewered the pod-person conformity of American consumerism, while 1985's considerably bleaker Day of the Dead used the human-zombie battleground as the stage for a cautionary fable about fascistic militarism, the nuclear-arms race and other potentially radioactive fallout of Ronald Reagan's Morning in America. Two decades later, Romero and his ghouls roared back in top form with Land of the Dead, a collection of notes on homeland insecurity, the widening income gap and our trilogy of war-zone boondoggles — Afghanistan, Iraq, Louisiana. And now, just in time for election season, they're baaack. Among the many nuggets of Strangeloveian satire George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead mines from its evergreen zombie mayhem, the deftest of them touch on everything from terrorism fears to illegal immigration. Indeed, as one radio commentator sagely observes on the film's soundtrack, these zombies are crossing a border that no 700-mile fence can secure.
What's reallyon Romero's mind this time, though, is the politics of image-making — and image consumption — in the YouTube/MySpace/iPhone era. Decked out with more webcams, Handycams and surveillance cams than you can shake a severed limb at, Diary of the Dead arrives as the latest exponent of what some have termed the "year of the camcorder movie" — a wave of recent films (including Brian De Palma's Iraq docudrama Redacted, the J.J. Abrams-produced monster mash Cloverfield and the forthcoming serial-killer flick The Poughkeepsie Tapes) that have co-opted, to varying means and ends, the aesthetics of the first-person video revolution. But where Cloverfield uses the trappings of cinema verite to foster a sense of documentary realism, Diary, like Redacted, sets out to expose the false notion of realism in cinema, even (or especially) in works of alleged nonfiction. It's a zombie movie by way of Brecht and Godard: Where most directors strive to elide the audience's awareness of the physical filmmaking process, Romero delights in exposing the rivets and joints holding together his movie's disparate pieces. He reminds us, at every opportunity, that all filmed images are by their very nature a manipulation — a decision about what to show and what not to show made by the person wielding the camera. Diary of the Dead begins with the supposedly raw footage of a live TV news report gone gruesomely awry at the onset of a global zombie pandemic, only to later show us those same images rearranged and sanitized for "official" broadcast. The movie's motto could be, Seeing is disbelieving.
Even the opening titles aren't to be fully trusted: Instead of Diary of the Dead, they tell us that we're watching The Death of Death, "a film by" University of Pittsburgh film student Jason Creed (Josh Close) made in the immediate aftermath of the zombie outbreak. Not one to miss a cinematic opportunity, Creed turns his camera on himself and his classmates after their other project — a low-budget mummy movie — is interrupted midshoot when life abruptly starts imitating schlock. The lead actor bolts from the set (bandages and all), while the rest of the crew (and their perpetually soused film professor) take to the highway in that iconic film-production vehicle: a Winnebago. And what of Creed? Why, he keeps filming — and editing, and uploading, and sometimes asking his documentary subjects to "do another take" — through it all. "I can't leave without the camera; the camera's the whole thing," he pleads to his girlfriend Deb (Michelle Morgan), who also serves as The Death of Death's narrator. "If it didn't happen on camera, it didn't happen, right?" she replies, showing that she's hip to his jive. In Jason Creed, Romero has given us the spiritual descendant of the compulsive cameraman protagonist from Haskell Wexler's seminal Medium Cool (a movie released the year after Night of the Living Dead) and of the Pulitzer Prize–winning photojournalist Kevin Carter (who took his own life at age 33, after a career spent documenting public executions and other social horrors in contemporary Africa). He films, therefore he is.
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The ideas Romero is circling around here aren't new, but the context is. At the time of Medium Cool, only a relative few possessed the ability to record and disseminate moving pictures. Six years earlier, when a Russian-Jewish garment manufacturer named Abraham Zapruder captured the JFK assassination in toto on an 8 mm movie camera, his became a name heard around the world. But who among us knows the names of any of the thousands of amateur videographers whose equally history-making images flooded the airwaves and the information superhighway on September 11, 2001? Today, we all like to film, and to watch, and to watch others watching — hence the recent proliferation of viral videos showing men and women of all ages reacting to a pornographic coprophagia short memorably titled 2 Girls, 1 Cup. For his part, Romero comes neither to condone nor to condemn. Diary of the Dead acknowledges the usefulness of our camera-equipped society where the uncensored flow of information and the routine embarrassment of celebrities are concerned, but it casts a circumspect eye on the extremes to which our democracy of images may lead — the Daniel Pearl beheading video available for downloading on a laptop near you, to name but one. It's a film about the ways in which the camera empowers its operator and immortalizes its subject, and how both may behave in ways they ordinarily wouldn't for the simple reason that the camera is rolling. That's as true of kids beating each over the head with two-by-fours in a backyard wrestling ring as it is of U.S. military personnel casting Iraqi prisoners in a humiliating costume parade. Just because we can now film everything, Romero asks, should we? And just because someone has filmed it, should we watch? And if we do, do we perhaps lose something of ourselves in the process; become, in effect, a kind of zombie?
Although the matters on Romero's mind weigh heavy, the movie he's made is anything but heavy-handed. Clocking in at a svelte 95 minutes, Diary of the Dead zips along, with loads of the EC Comics gore (including what I believe to be the cinema's first act of human-zombie murder-suicide) that loyal Dead-heads have come to expect. Therein lies Romero's subversive genius — he gives the audience what it craves, and a whole lot more it never bargained for. But pay close attention to Diary of the Dead and you may detect something less than its maker's customary exuberance in each successive popping eyeball and exploding head. As Creed and company boldly go where no cameramen have gone before, Romero himself seems to step back, staging certain violent encounters just outside of viewfinder range, or during that bane of every videographer's existence — battery failure. "It's too easy to use," says one of Romero's characters of a camera, moments after another says the same of a shotgun. And watching Diary of the Dead, you feel that Romero has been made weary by a historical moment filled with so much indiscriminate pointing and shooting, whether with zoom lenses or smart bombs.
"It used to be us against us; now it's us against them ... except, they are us," Deb remarks in one of the movie's most quotable bits of zombie pocket wisdom. And above all, Romero's Dead pentalogy has always circled back to the question of what it means to be human, for both the living and the undead. But as early as Night of the Living Dead's brutal finale, Romero established that the line separating human from zombie was a fluid one, and in each successive film he has only further muddied those waters — from Day of the Dead's endearingly servile, Frankenstein-like zombie Bub to Land of the Dead's black and proud Big Daddy, who leads the zombie dispossessed in something like a class revolt. In Diary, the landscape is murkier than ever, as Deb, traumatized by what she has seen of her fellow survivors (including one shattering act of zombie imprisonment and torture), questions whether mankind is really worth saving. In most horror movies, it's a given that we should root for the heroes to make it out alive, but Diary of the Dead isn't nearly so certain, and so it terrifies us all the more.
GEORGE A. ROMERO'S DIARY OF THE DEAD | Written and directed by GEORGE A. ROMERO | Produced by PETER GRUNWALD, ARTUR SPIGEL, SAM ENGLEBARDT and ARA KATZ | Released by the Weinstein Company | Nuart