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Mass Consumption:
George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead

The Stop Smiling Film Review

(Weinstein Co.)

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Saturday, February 16, 2008


Diary of the Dead
Directed by George A. Romero
(Weinstein Co.)

Reviewed by Mark Asch

“This is an entry I would have preferred not to have published, but there are limits to what we can control in life,” Andrew Olmstead, an American officer deployed in Iraq, wrote this July on andrewolmstead.com, to be posted on his blog in the event of his death. “As with many bloggers, I have a disgustingly large ego, and so I just couldn't bear the thought of not being able to have the last word if the need arose… since I won't get another chance to say what I think, I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity. Such as it is.”

At the outset of George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead, we’re told that we’re watching the digital-video documentary The Death of Death, “a film by Jason Creed,” completed, and narrated, by his fellow-film student girlfriend, Deb (Michelle Morgan). So it’s no spoiler to reveal that Jason (Josh Close) takes advantage of the opportunity, such as it is, to have the last word over his death, filming it with one of the cameras he and his crew have used to record the latest munchie run of the unquiet departed. Romero, who’s herded his lumbering undead into allegories about race relations, commercialism, the various blinkerings of the military and pure-scientific worldviews, class, immigration and the War on Terror, now takes on, with Diary of the Dead, a splintered mediasphere and the digitally fueled drive to Tell the Truth — or at least shoulder one’s way into the control booth.

The shoot for Josh’s zombie film (natch) interrupted by broadcast reports of real-life undeath, he and his crew pile into the production trailer and drive across Pennsylvania, looking for family and survivors. As ever, the core group is easily categorized into survivors and fodder; as ever, Land of the Dead’s top-billed foursome excepted, the ensemble’s fulfillment of their archetypal (or at least genre-conventional) destinies is best described as “non-distracting.” Initially, as Josh decides to refashion his film as a documentary, Diary recalls Redacted, in its invention of a media fixation to justify why someone involved in the action is always filming it, and contrive a point of entry for shrill arguments about the ethics of filmmaking. It’s all talk, theoretically and for that matter narratively — one needn’t be a splatter junkie to miss Romero’s marshalling of action across multiple theaters. But the maestro finds a way to slay intellectual and aesthetic antsiness with the same bullet.

In a hospital, where Our Heroes have the ground rules demonstrated for them — the dead return as the un-, hungry for the flesh of the living; they, and the infected or otherwise terminal mortal, are only stopped when the brain is taken out by a bullet or creatively utilized piece of set dressing — they find a second camera. From there, swap offscreen screams and shaky-cam footage of nothing in particular for tense shoestring set-pieces, crosscut together from camcorders, cell phones and security tapes.

So now Romero has implicitly abandoned Redacted’s straw-man forum for “The Tracking Shot in Kapo” territory — per Jacques Rivette’s excoriation of Gillo Pontecorvo’s perceived “abjection” in reframing a shot of a suicide, the questionable morality of any aesthetic decision when human suffering is on display. In Gimme Shelter, the Maysles Brothers cut from Altamont to their own editing suite, complete with kibitzing Mick Jagger, acknowledging their shaping of the events. Romero references that scene explicitly, as Josh leaves his camera running while he and a crewmate Final Cut a match-on-action from a previous scene.

When an in-progress cut of The Death of Death is uploaded onto the internet, and as the crew downloads censored news footage and personal video diaries to piece together an incomplete Big Picture, the issue of Truth — its manipulation on behalf of us in the audience, and by Jason on behalf of his own desire for the last word — is surpassed by issues of subjectivity, of reality as something curated from out of an exponentially expanding field of digital POVs. All this, and more, is addressed in Deb’s voice-over accompaniment of The Death of Death’s montage interludes. Her facile undergrad Bigthink proclamations could be parody, but given the script’s fumblings over “the bloggers” and suchlike (which twentysomething actor had to show the director how to set up a MySpace account?), it’s more likely a matter of Romero believing his own press. Read enough think pieces anointing you the Swift of the grindhouse and maybe you gild Land of the Dead’s well-constructed allegorical lily with Dennis Hopper’s conspicuously Rumsfeldian pronouncements. Diary, aside from its po-mo book reports, features blunter-than-ever critiques of American ugliness, fascists-in-fatigues and pot-shooting rednecks lumbering, zombielike, into the flow of the narrative for their close-ups.

Maybe, though, these guest-columnist bits are a matter of Romero adjusting to a new structure. Given Diary’s handheld nature and demographically homogenous protagonists, anything Romero wants to say, his principals have to encounter. So rather than the social microcosms of the four previous Dead movies — Night of the Living’s farmhouse, Dawn’s shopping mall, Day’s bunker, Land’s fortified city-state — Diary is a cross-section. Note that the crew’s road trip is structured as a social climb: After the hospital sequence reveals society’s breakdown, they go from an Amish barn in Dutch Country to an African-American bust town to Deb’s Scranton split-level to a classmate’s Main Line mansion.

That’s the kind of ingenuity that’s always been a part of Romero’s conceptions, up to Diary’s crashing of the media studies faculty party. So it’s a shame that here, more than ever, he has to spell it all out for his audience, as if he just couldn't bear the thought of not being able to have the last word.

 

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