In the spirit of Brian Doherty's Friday Reviews, here's a quick write-up of the last zombie movie I was lucky enough to see. Watch out for spoilers, as I tried to include all of them.
"Shoot me." Those are the final words of Jason Creed (Joshua Close), burbled through a bloody larynx to Debra (Michelle Morgan), near the close of George Romero's Diary of the Dead. And Debra understands. With one hand she lifts the camera Creed had been using to film the end of civilization, rolling tape even as his friend grappled with zombies and fought to keep from getting bitten and joining their number. With another hand she handles a gun and aims it at his head. Point, click, shoot. Creed's demise becomes the penultimate scene of his documentary, The Death of Death, which Debra will finish editing as the undead beat on the doors of the panic room where she's taken refuge.
You want subtlety? Too bad: You get stuff like this. Romero's fifth zombie film breaks completely from his decades-spanning Dead series. The zombie awakening did not happen in 1968. It is happening right now, in the dorm rooms and suburbias of Broadband America. Everyone has videocameras, and hip, happenin' hackers get their info not from the mainstream media—lies, lies, lies!—but from MySpace and "YouTube message boards."
This "Internet," as the kids call it, is powerful enough to be accessed from camera phones, from panic rooms, and from safe houses in the hard heart of rural Pennsylvania. The first evidence of the zombie attack, a live news shot that the networks have mangled into all-is-well-propaganda, is uploaded without edits, and the panic is enough to evacuate entire cities. Jason Creed's video, uploaded in chunks to his MySpace page, goes viral faster than a Chris Crocker rant. When Debra confronts him about messing around with Final Cut while Harrisburg burns, Creed stands his ground with a stirring speech about page views: "72,000 views in eight minutes! 72,000 views! By the end of the day it'll be a million! By tomorrow, who knows?" Ooh! Ooh! I know! A dwindling number of fear-crazed people scrambling to survive on a dying planet?
In this post-Max Brooks era, when every horror fan has thought through the logistics of a zombie attack (after the movie I hung out with a few people who hadn't even seen it, and conversation turned at one point to a Kentucky house that could be easily fortified in the occasion of this terrible event), this stuff just doesn't wash. Romero's craft hasn't grown much from film to film, but his anger has. And just as David Simon produced his weakest episodes of The Wire when he turned his focus on the media, Romero has produced his weakest, wateriest social commentary with this focus on citizen filmmaking. Early on he takes a shot at the new wave of movies that feature fast-moving zombies, as Creed shoots a corny horror film with a mummy that's walking too fast. "You're dead! You can't run!" Creed snaps. "Your ankles would snap in half!" You don't get the point? Wait until the end of the movie, when the actor who played that mummy, now a zombie, lurches after the same actress he was chasing in the faux movie. "I told you they don't move fast," Creed says… as the actress runs for her life from a murderous zombie.
Most of Romero's commentary is just as muddled, and much of it is put into the mouth of Debra, narrating over the footage she grabbed from Creed's cameras. She pronounces the mainstream "dead" says it's up to hackers and bloggers to share the truth of things. Seconds later she pooh-poohs the idea of hackers and bloggers getting out the truth: "the more voice, the more spin." It's clear that Romero loves this new way of telling a story, and it's equally clear that he's torn over what he thinks of it. That seriously hobbles the stabs at profundity that crop up at least every 10 minutes.
But if you forgive Romero that he's put together an enjoyable b-movie. The low-wattage cast have been instructed to ham it up, and they deliver. Scott Wentworth, who plays the hard-drinking Prof. Maxwell, delivers a masterful camp performance, full of non sequitors about his British upbringing and the horrors he saw "in the war." (The Falklands?) It fall to him to deliver the inevitable Romero point about people grasping onto the old, dead world as they reject the new and dangerous one. He finds a copy of A Tale of Two Cities: "A treasure!" He clasps the book to his chest and sighs. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." It's not quite Dennis Hopper's Kaufman hoarding cigars in Land of the Dead; actually, it's hilarious. Like the moment when the black vigilantes brag about "having the power now," or the rednecks shoot at a corpse they've tied up with a lynchin' rope, it's an old Romero theme flattened out and reduced to parody.
Everything that needed to be said about zombie films was said in Tim Cavanaugh's exhaustive 2007 reason feature. If Romero had read that, and realized how well-trod this territory had become, I think he might have come up with a better movie.