Monday, February 18, 2008

Diary of the Dead

By Elise Nakhnikian

In one of those weird plot echoes that often reverberate in Hollywood, two horror films now showing -- Cloverfield and Diary of the Dead -- go for realistic chills by posing as documentaries, rough assemblages of often shaky footage taken by young adults who clung to their camcorders as their worlds cave in around them.

We’ve long since lost the shock of the new that generated so much buzz for The Blair Witch Project, the granddaddy of these mock-shock-docs. But Diary writer-director George Romero doesn’t want to just mirror the YouTube generation’s obsession with documenting their lives: He wants to comment on it. The topic of his film is the information overload that, he argues, has lulled nearly all of us into a semi-zombified state of passive nonresistance.

If that sounds like a lot for a zombie movie to bite off, you don’t know Romero, whose Night of the Living Dead kicked off a whole genre in 1968. Romero puts zombies in his movies for the same reason Deb (Michelle Morgan), the level-headed student who edit her dead boyfriend’s footage to create the film-within-a-film in Diary, sometimes adds music to the soundtrack – they want to get our attention. “I’m hoping to scare you ... so that maybe you’ll wake up,” says Deb.

Just as Godzilla was birthed by the Japanese experience with the atom bomb in WWII, Romero’s zombies bring us news about how we’re destroying ourselves and each other, serving their gore with a generous side order of metaphor. That news changes with every decade, giving us what the director, in a recent interview with the New York Times, called “snapshots of North America at a particular moment.”

This time around, Romero is mainly interested in how we’re affected by the barrage of media we’re constantly exposed to – and, increasingly, producing ourselves. He wants to explore the way that holding a camera turns us into passive observers rather than participants, even when we’re filming our own lives. And he wants to look at the way all the violence we’re exposed to has desensitized us to death.

All true, no doubt, but these aren’t blindingly new insights, so a little of this kind of talk would have gone a long way. After the second or third time Deb says: “if it isn’t on camera, it’s like it never happened, right?” you’re practically rooting for a zombie to shamble over and shut her up already.

But try telling that to Romero. Like an anxious mom with medicine to dispense, he keeps tapping your shoulder and handing you yet another dose of earnest social commentary. You know he means well. You may even think he’s right. Still, it’s a real buzz kill.

That’s not to say that Romero has lost his sense of humor or his talent for putting us right inside a scene, with his handheld cameras and his guy-next-door feel for how regular people talk.

The movie starts on a light foot, with Deb’s boyfriend, film student Jason (Joshua Close), making a mummy movie in a dark woods that could be straight out of one of Romero’s own movies. Romero good-naturedly spoofs his own work as the lead actress complains about the treatment of female victims, Jason pontificates about making “a horror movie with an underlying thread of social satire,” and Deb, the voiceover of reason, informs us that Jason really wants to make documentaries.

Then the zombies stumble back to undeath and we’re off. Jason, Deb, a disillusioned retired professor of Jason’s, and a handful of his fellow film students commandeer what looks like a film school van and head off in search of a safe haven in the fast-spreading chaos. We’re along for the ride, watching it all unfold through a combination of Jason’s omnipresent lens and the footage he gathers from sources like Youtube, MySpace and the surveillance cameras he finds everywhere.

Ironically, Romero creates the very condition of passive semi-engagement that his movie critiques. I never rooted for any particular person to survive, aside from Deb and a feisty Amish farmer the group encounters on the road. Everyone else was so underdeveloped I barely learned their names before they were gone.

Of course you want the humans to prevail and the zombies to die, preferably in showy and imaginative ways – like the one whose brain fizzes into oblivion when acid eats through his skull. But that generates about as much emotional investment as you’d get from playing a video game, along with a similar pattern of long patches of low-level tension dotted with adrenaline spikes.

Romero may have outsmarted himself this time, going so meta he lost sight of the main storyline. After all the mini-lectures were over, Diary of the Dead taught me one new thing: Too much talk about how filming something deadens its impact can really deaden a movie’s impact.

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