Romero in the Media Age
The other day I had a friend complain to me that I’d completely slacked off on my mini-reviews of movies in this blog. This probably surprised me the most in terms of someone actually caring enough about my blog to complain about its contents, but I shall not dwell on that, for creator self-deprecation is largely (and probably very rightly) considered a not-so-entertaining topic. Besides, from the very beginning of the website I willingly exiled myself to the bottom of the page, knowing that the great majority of folks come by a webcomic to read a friggin’ webcomic, not read some random dude’s prattle about whatever’s ticked his fancy that week.
Uh, anyhow, you are reading this. So for you folks, I’ll just plead that it ain’t my fault! You see, after several weeks’ worth of my binging on various westerns and zombie movies, my wife put her foot down and banned further viewings in her presence, despite my protestations that Redneck Zombies was necessary research. Yes, the same wife that draws Zombie Ranch… meaning I have more than just the usual marital reasons for keeping her happy; if she burns out, my stick figure acumen just isn’t going to be a replacement.
I had to go cold turkey for awhile, but fortunately she’s 1) expressed that it’s okay again now that there’s been a break, and more importantly 2) she’s working Renaissance Faire on the weekends, meaning I get the apartment to myself. So I managed to sneak in a few movies, one of which I’ll talk about now.
Diary of the Dead is George Romero’s latest re-telling of his zombie apocalypse. Actually I should say next-to-latest since Survival of the Dead is now released, but I haven’t gotten my eyeballs on that one yet. Reviews so far (even from genre fans) seem to suggest I ain’t missing much, even though I’ve heard it tried to evoke a bit of a Western feel and had penned zombies. That interests me, naturally, but I’ll probably be waiting on Netflix.
Diary of the Dead also interested me because of the documentary aspect applied to zombies. For those who don’t know, Diary’s plot opens on a group of film students making a horror movie, who start seeing and hearing the early news reports of what turns out to be a zombie outbreak –a particularly nasty outbreak that combines the ‘death by bite’ motif with ‘everyone who dies for whatever reason becomes a zombie’. The remainder of the movie shows their attempts to get home or to safety, and does so purely by way of “in the environment” means, including various hand held cameras and security footage. Never is the camera meant not to be an actual camera.
It’s an interesting conceit that goes a step beyond films like Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, or REC/Quarantine by not chaining all the action to the view of a single camera, but it still suffers at times from the stretches of credulity that crop up, a la “Why the heck are you still filming? Run!” Of course when they do run, you get that lovely shakycam blur effect which annoys the heck out of me if it goes on longer than a few seconds. Yes, I know this is supposed to immerse me in the chaos, but I’d like to at least see comprehensible images on the screen.
Now there’s attempts to lampshade this phenomenon in Diary by making out the main guy doing the filming as being obsessed with documenting the events to the point where he lacks all empathy and all common sense, but the way the film does that is very, very heavy-handed. You have characters basically spelling all of it out to us, when I think the point would have come across rather readily on its own. In fact, that’s the main failing of the movie; Romero feels the need to spell out everything, either in the dialog or in the intrusive narration of one of the characters. That character, by the way, is narrating everything as a flashback, which destroys the immediacy and intimacy of the idea of filming this “as it happens” right at the movie’s start.
Let’s put it this way. The end of the original Night of the Living Dead played out as casual, incidental talk, a terrible (but unknown) mistake, and then silent images of the aftermath. It’s powerful to this day because that silence allows you to think about what you’ve witnessed and come to your conclusions. But as evidenced in Diary, if Romero were directing NotLD today, that whole sequence would have had to have some disembodied narrative voice clearly condemning everything going on and declaring things like “We… we are the true zombies!”
No really, at the end the narrator character in Diary literally must muse, “Are we worth saving?”
I think Romero wanted to revise his formula to make a commentary on our current media-obsessed, viral video culture in the way he commented on consumerism back in Dawn of the Dead, but in Diary he’s just lost that whole idea of showing and not telling. There’s no room to ponder potential larger meanings when those meanings are being force-fed to you, at which point I was left with the impression of a zombie movie desperately attempting to be “deep and relevant” in between the gore shots.
That said, it wasn’t all bad… hell, Romero even gave me my much desired scene of a survivalist compound that was populated by people who hadn’t become complete sociopaths overnight. And when the students later get robbed by a different group, no one’s sexually assaulted and they even get to keep their guns, with the explanation that the opportunists wanted the food and medicine but allowed that taking someone’s guns at this time was a death sentence. “They’re thieves, not murderers,” one character observes, in one of the few comments on the action that I appreciated.
Remnants of human decency between strangers, even in the midst of total social breakdown? Hell yeah, that was nice to see. I just wish the rest of the movie had shut up long enough for me to decide if we were worth saving or not.