I saw Diary of the Dead last night, and now I'm gonna talk about it. I'm sure I'll be giving away lots of spoilers (which, quite frankly, I always do here at FG) so if'n that ain't your bag, turn away now like a little baby. Go on! Git!
Side note: I like the idea of The Blair Zombie Project, and I'd like to see the franchise expand even further, to wit: The Blair Dracula Project, The Blair Lepus Project, The Blair Blob Project.
Now then. Any of you who are my MySpace fake friends (and why aren't you if you aren't? MySpace is totally hip and happening and so very now amongst the kids and 'hackers', and I know this because Diary of the Dead told me so!) who happened to read my blog over there know that the DotD trailer didn't particularly get me all a-touchin' mahself with anticipation. There were plenty of you who were excited about it, though, and sometimes that can be infectious. Before the movie last night, I was ready. Romero is calling DotD "...a whole new beginning for the dead". I was all "Zombies. Romero. Independently financed. Free screening. Yessssss." And then...
...I kind of disliked it. Scratch that- I really disliked it. Diary of the Dead didn't work on any level for me, and that really bums me out. I adore Romero, and even though I don't always adore his films, he's made some of my absolute favorite horror movies. Hell, I even liked Land of the Dead when I saw it in the theatre...though not so much when I watched the DVD at home a few months later. So what happened with Diary that left me feeling like an old, used up whore, all bitter and dead inside? Unfortunately...everything.
A group college kids are off in the woods filming a no-budget mummy movie when they hear reports on the radio about a few dead people returning to life and making with the chomp-chomp on the living. The kids are unsure what to think, but they decide to stop filming and head home. They pile into a Winnebago and have various wacky and gross zombie-laden adventures all caught on camera by mummy movie director Jason (Josh Close), who can't put down the camera because he is the voice of truth!
I'm not one to nitpick a film, really I'm not. Unless there's something glaringly obvious that doesn't gel (like, "Wait, didn't his head just get cut off? How is he walking around?"), I'm a very-forgiving movie-watcher. After Diary of the Dead, though, I found myself going "Well, what about this? And that? And why did that happen?" because if you look at the film on anything deeper than a "zombie eat people! me like!" level, it all falls apart.
I know that The Blair Witch Project has its detractors and it always has. No matter how you feel about the content of that film and whether or not it scared you, there's no denying that the movie felt real...basically, because it was. Directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez handed lo-fi cameras over to Heather Donahue, Josh Leonard, and Mike Williams and the result was as verite as verite can get. Though Diary purports to be shot in the same way (every shot in the film is accounted for and explained away: it's this camera, it's that security camera, I found it on YouTube) (yes, YouTube. And MySpace. And Panasonic. I guess "independently financed" means "product placement".), it's too slick to ever feel "real". Romero is still very much in charge and the man has been making movies for 40+ years...it's gonna look professional. The characters talk about editing, talk about their shots, blah blah blah, but it all feels like a conceit.
It doesn't help, either, that the acting was dreadful. Part of this, I think, is a result of the script: a lot of the dialogue felt completely unnatural and the characters were all unlikable. Seriously. I wanted them all to die, right across the board- especially the "director", Jason. Despite the fact that the world was falling apart around them, despite the fact that the dead were returning to life and killing the living, despite the fact that they had to, at times, kill loved ones who had 'turned', no one was emotionally affected by anything for more than a few seconds. The girl who had to shoot her undead boyfriend was all "Don't mess with Texas y'all! Can I have this lipgloss?" an hour later. The girl who was attacked by her own undead family brushed it off with little more than a "Phew! Okay, where to now?".
Diary of the Dead takes place over a 3-4 day period at the very beginning of the zombie outbreak. Romero makes sure we know the film is jam-packed with Katrina and 9-11 symbolism, but none of the reality of those terrifying situations, none of the confusion and fear and urgency of those events comes across on screen. The world has fallen apart so very much and so very quickly that a hospital is completely empty a few hours after the first zombie attack? That's a frightening prospect, if unbelievable, but our plucky filmmakers encounter little more than a few zombies here and a few zombies there as they make their way across Pennsylvania. The real footage spliced in- of car crashes, of Katrina aftermath, of riots in some vague Middle Eastern venue- feel completely out of place and unnecessary. They don't add to a sense of "the world is fucked" because the actual goings-on in the film don't add to a sense of "the world is fucked". Jason's "the government is lying to us and holding out on us and I have to keep filming because I am the voice of truth!" reasoning just doesn't...well, it doesn't ring true when the zombie outbreak is 4 hours old and he's one of a group of privileged college kids traipsing across Pennsylvanian back roads in a nice camper with no sense of imminent danger. Had the perspective been that of a poor, inner-city family with no alternatives and no way to escape the danger, then Romero might have been on to something.
Everyone likes to talk about how rife with symbolism Romero's zombie pictures are, yes? I suppose they are. Night of the Living Dead can be seen as a statement about race relations, but according to Romero himself that was never the intent: Duane Jones was cast because he was the best actor who read for the part of Ben, not because of his skin color. Thanks to its shopping mall setting, Dawn of the Dead is a parable about consumerism, but let's face it- the symbolism really stops at "zombies in a mall". And that's fine. The audience can glean whatever meaning they want from Romero's early zombie films, interpreting the night away. The key is, Romero left it up to the audience. Whether his messages were intentional or not, he got them across with a light touch. In Land of the Dead and, to a much greater extent, Diary of the Dead, the audience is absolutely fucking bludgeoned to (un)death with symbolism and meaning and metaphor. The photo montage at the end of Night of the Living Dead, where human bodies are tossed into fire like so much trash, is disturbing, haunting, and silent. Here, we're literally asked "if we're worth saving". And please, don't get me started on this bit:
"It used to be us vs. us. Now, it's us vs. them. But they are us."
Obviously, that should read:
"It used to be us vs. us. Now, it's us vs. them. But they are us. Which means...it is us vs. us. Gah! Never mind. I don't know what I'm talking about."
Regardless of how...well, how retarded the line is to begin with, I have the same problem with it that I had in Tom Savini's NotLD remake: if you show me that humans are no 'better' than the very monsters we're fighting, I'll dig it. If you just say it, laying it all on the table with a big fat proclamation, I'm gonna sigh. Are people so stupid that they need everything spelled out for them? I certainly hope not, but maybe I'm overestimating things.
The biggest offense of all, in my opinion, is that Diary of the Dead comes up short even on its most basic level as a horror film. Yeah, there are a few jump scares. Yeah, there are some cool shots. But there was never really any tension, never any urgency, never any creepiness or real sense of danger. These kids get a handle on the situation pretty quickly and have no problem dispatching the undead in a variety of fashions, even loved ones. No one is particularly bothered by anything, and no one is ever grossed out. Why is no one horrified or disturbed when a head gets blown off right in front of them and they end up covered in viscera? I'm not saying it needs to occur throughout the entire film, but one "That's disgusting" can go a long way. I can't even deal with a squished bug, never mind seeing someone's guts spill out onto the floor (yes, the infamous guts-to-the-floor shot from Day of the Dead is pretty much recreated here...to far lesser shock effect). Everyone is blase about everything, which just ain't right.
I miss Tom Savini. Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of Greg Nicotero (DotD's Special Make-Up Effects Producer) as well, but the effects are almost all computer-generated now. I'd rather sacrifice a wicked cool shot to have some organic FX...and I'm sorry, but Savini produced plenty of wicked cool shots with karo syrup and latex.
It all comes down to good idea, exceedingly poor execution. It hurts me to say so, but I wish I had more thumbs so I could give Diary of the Dead more thumbs down. The more I think about it, the less I like it...so I'm just going to stop thinking about it.
Here's hoping that the other "keep the camera rolling" zombie movie, [REC], gets it right. Now that's a trailer that's got me all a-touchin' mahself with anticipation!