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Sunday, March 09, 2008 

Film review: Diary of the Dead.

When George A. Romero finally got the funding and studio-backing that had been missing from his original dead/zombie trilogy to produce his long-written script for the fourth film in the series, most assumed that he'd finally be able to square the critical and box office success he managed with the first two films with the production values that had been absent from them. In the circumstances, Tom Savini's gore effects in both Dawn and Day were superb, with the effects in Day, although over-the-top remaining some of the most effective to date, but the zombies themselves somewhat suffered. While this was corrected to an extent in Day, it still lacked the budget that would have enabled Romero's original vision to be realised.

In the event, Land of the Dead was a mess. It perhaps didn't help that it came shortly after Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright had ripped the genre to pieces with Shaun of the Dead (a film incidentally that Romero loves and championed), while Zack Synder remade the original Dawn, which was a competent updating if nowhere near on the level of the original, but it just didn't come close to equalling the first three in the series. While all the previous films had made use of almost unknown to completely unknown actors, Land saw stalwarts of the scene like Dennis Hopper and Asia Argento make appearances, and ones that just didn't seem to fit with either the mood of Romero's previous works or that helped the film in other states rather than recognition. Romero had simply taken the story arc as far as it could conceivably go in Day: even the military and scientists had been overwhelmed, with the only safe havens distant islands. Now we were back to a city where intricate defences had been built with the poor going on scavenger hunts for the rich walled up in secure apartments, and where the vehicle which took them on such jaunts seemed a bigger star than the characters themselves. The money which he had always felt that he had needed to create his opus had actually only shown up the weaknesses that he had previously thrived on overcoming.

The announcement that there was to be a fifth in the series, with Romero going back to his roots and starting again from scratch, on a much-lower budget and with again mainly no-name actors filling the roles pointed towards a potential return to form. The only sticking point was that the story was to be based around college students filming a horror film only to be interrupted by the dead returning to life; it stank of all the inherent problems which have long afflicted "slasher" films where the characters are crude stereotypes to be killed off rather than developed.

Nobody needed to of worried. The very last thing that Romero does is create weak characters: even if you don't really know much about the 4 individuals put together in Dawn, you soon warm to them regardless of their sketchiness. Diary works so well exactly because the students which are thrown together, trying to reach their various homes and survive the zombie awakening are, unlike in so many other films in the genre, likeable, well-rounded and actually believable as students. The perhaps one weak-spot is their professor, Maxwell (Scott Wentworth), the rather unbelievably erudite, suave and given to profound epiphanies Englishman, seen constantly swigging from a canteen, whom we later learn is a graduate of Eton, where he handily learned archery. Thankfully, he's just a bit of fun and clearly not to be taken too seriously.

Starting out with a news report that documents some of the first "dead" returning to life and with the students learning during the shooting of their mummy movie from the radio that there are reports coming in of zombies starting to maraude, the conceit is that Jason (played by Joshua Close), the lead, has always wanted to be a documentary-maker rather than a film-maker, and so naturally begins to shoot everything on their journey together in a Winnebago. The first step is naturally to retrieve his cynical girlfriend Debra (Michelle Morgan), whose first remark on seeing him after he enters her room is to ask him why he's filming.

It's the question that's asked throughout the picture, and one though it never quite becomes tiresome, is rather overplayed. Romero's subtext and social commentary has never been entirely subtle, and the riff this time round is clearly that user-generated content and citizen news-gathering is the future. Indeed, the mainstream news, which they have on occasionally, is broadcasting that the outbreak is simply a virus and that everyone reporting that the dead are returning to life and attacking the living is simply mistaken or exaggerating. Briefly the satire turns on the American government directly, with a White House official asked to justify why the terrorist threat level was initially raised at the beginning of the outbreak, with the official then going on to argue that things will return to normal shortly and that no one should panic. This is of course just slightly unbelievable; we're talking about the US news networks here, never afraid in the slightest to scaremonger or screen the most sensationalist stories they can possibly find, almost urging viewers to panic perpetually. That they wouldn't be screening some of the user shot footage sent into them to prove the government is lying is also rather daft. Still, that isn't Romero's point; it's rather that the corporate machine has taken over, and that it simply can't be trusted with something as loosely defined as the truth. Lying beneath the surface is in actual fact a far more interesting notion: just why do we film and watch the most horrendous things that we can imagine and just happen to come into contact with, and does this make us any better than those who perpetrate such things? Why also do we increasingly feel the need to record our every moment, our every thought and every action? This is most powerfully expressed at the film's conclusion, in a gore scene which outdoes everything else in the picture by quite a margin.

Due to the film's conceit that everything is being recorded by relative amateurs, if film students, the rather shaky hand-held camera-work can be somewhat annoying to start with, but it's still nowhere near as bad as the awful MTV-video style constant cutting which afflicts so many new Hollywood movies, and you soon get used to it. Most impressive is that the no-name cast has delivered for the most part, with Michelle Morgan as Debra being especially impressive both in narrating what her boyfriend shot and in her role as the long-suffering voice of reason that tries to understand Jason's motives for continuing to shoot while everything around them is falling apart. It's clear that it's Jason's way of coping as they come into contact with the shambling dead, as well as how little by little their group diminishes before they eventually reach the "fortress" home of one of their friends who went off on his own at the start, and where the film begins its final act. He's also not immune to wanting stardom, as his hastily-edited first part of what has happened to them rapidly gains 72,000 hits within 10 minutes on MurdochSpace. This is what makes the film: while such details would have been brushed out of a Hollywood effort in delivering all-out mayhem, action and gore from start to finish, or dealt with quickly and unsatisfactorily, such as in the Dawn remake, Romero's script and narrative is at least 10 times as intelligent as all his imitators, as you would expect.

Speaking of the gore, and keeping in mind the low-budget origins (the film was shot for approx $2,000,000), much of it is of the CGI variety and looks it, but a gag near the beginning where Debra uses hospital resuscitation pads on a zombie's head, resulting in a eyeball explosion is impressive and amusing, and the later use of weaponry other than guns also alluded to is pulled off with relative panache. The effects are produced by Savini protege Greg Nicotero, as they were in Land, which provides the connection to the landmark effects in the previous films. Nothing does however quite reach the nastiness and comment of the set-piece in Land where a girl has her navel-piercing pulled out by a zombie's teeth, which is a shame. Also evident if you can spot them, and I relatively failed, are news bulletins as read by Wes Craven, Tarantino, Stephen King, Simon Pegg and Guillermo del Toro as well as one directly taken from the film that started it all, Night, while Romero also puts in a more easily noticeable cameo.

Flawed as it, it's definitely a return to form for the master of zombie horror, and who can bet against Romero now turning in a sixth and one would imagine final Dead film to end it all on a high?

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But the one question I want answering is ... are the zombies stiff with rigor mortis or do they run round like maniacs as per the Dawn remake?

They're slow moving, as you'd expect from Romero, and there's even a gag about it.

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