Monday Movie Mini-Review: George Romero's Diary of the Dead

|

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.

Advertisement

NEXT: Hillary Mortgages the Future

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. I have not seen the movie yet and so will not read the review. However, after Land of the Dead and Bruiser, Romero (whose early work I love, such as Season of the Witch and Martin) has clearly lost the gift he once had.

    Romero is at his best with low budgets and grainy, unpolished cinematography, but with tight, meaningful scripts. His recent movies have been too polished while their stories are the opposite.

    It’s a shame but it happens to everyone.

  2. I have always thought that zombie movies seem a bit redundant these days. I mean we have brainwashed drones running around who think it reasonable to blow themselves up and kill as many as people as possible.

    Romero seems stuck in that 60s mentality with his crap about consumerism et al. Then again doing social commentary with a zombie flick in a bit daft in the first place.

  3. The best thing about the rise of the zombie in popular culture is the proportional descent of the vampire.

  4. Uh, SugarFree, I guess you missed the Blade series, Moonlight on ABC, Buffy, etc.

    Andrew, a lot of people think that it was a comment on consumerism; my take was that it was about how the slow, stupid zombies weren’t much of a threat. The main threat came from infighting between the humans.

  5. wow this movie has gotten some mixed reviews. i can’t wait to see it to see who’s right. i’m a romero fan so i hope it’s good. i don’t think he’s completely lost his gift. “bruiser” wasn’t any good but “land of the dead” wasn’t bad.

    btw everyone who hasn’t needs to see his “martin” which is better then anything else he’s done. thats a perfect film.

  6. Epi,

    I’m down with Buffy and Angel, liked 1 1/3 of the three Blade movies… but we are now in an era of vampire retreat in culture. BtVS ended in 2003, Angel 2004, Blade: Trinity 2004 (and the TV series flopped.)

    Moonlight only serves to prove my point: the only vampire on TV right now is about as threatening as a growling puppy and stars in a Friday-night CBS romance drama (a demographic dominated by overweight secretaries in flannel pajamas that watch TV as something to do while eating a tub of ice cream.) The whole thing is shot in such soft focus, it looks like someone ejaculated on the camera lens.

    It’s just time to put the noble vampire character away for a decade or so and focus on something else. The zombie narrative is more vital now. Hell, why people aren’t falling all over themselves in a mad rush to turn Kirkman’s The Walking Dead into a TV series is beyond me.

  7. I’ve always thought werewolves are very underrated, but that’s just me.

  8. SugarFree, nice summation of Moonlight 🙂

    I don’t see the zombie narrative as vital. Zombies have been distorted by I Am Legend (shakes fist at sky while cursing Will Smith), 28 Days Later, and others into fast-moving rabies parallels.

    Since people seem to like the fast-moving rabid “zombies”, I think traditional zombies are pretty much finished. It’s a shame because there is a special kind of dread that comes from a shambling zombie that is only dangerous in great numbers.

  9. It’s just time to put the noble vampire character away for a decade or so and focus on something else. The zombie narrative is more vital now.

    I dunno. I always thought of 28 Days Later as the exclamation point on that sentence, much like 30 Days of Night was a nice coda for the vampires. Personally, I think we’ll more likely see a resurgence in the monster-smash genre (Cloverfield, The Host).

    Not to drag politics back where it is unwelcome, but I do find it interesting that political/war/PTSD thrillers (which for a while seemed like the new master genre) are flopping like fish on land these days.

  10. I don’t see the zombie narrative as vital. Zombies have been distorted by I Am Legend (shakes fist at sky while cursing Will Smith), 28 Days Later, and others into fast-moving rabies parallels.

    Haven’t seen IAL yet, but I thought that 28 Days Later did “fast” zombies creepily enough that it didn’t bother me they were all hopped up. From what I hear (correct me if I’m wrong) IAL’s “zombies” not only more fast, but are generally agile, and [heresy!!!] are capable of complex thought. Say it ain’t so!

  11. Werewolves are cool, and I was digging Wolf Lake when it came out. But people gravitate to the sexualized vampire much more than someone–even Mia Kirshner–who turns into a dog.

    The werewolf story is about loss of control to animal impulses. The vampire story used to be about predation but then became highly sexualized and finally became “wouldn’t it rock to be immortal, virtually unkillable, sexy, and super-strong?” The zombie story was about being constantly on your guard (slip up once and the zombies get you), and is now about running away as fast as possible.

    They will all continue to be used, but the vampire narrative is going to win overall.

  12. Epi,

    I was meaning vital in sense of the genre being popular.

    I’m not much for the fast-zombies either, but the popularity of 28 Days Later might have killed the slow ones for the itme being.

    I loved 28 Days Later in the theater, but later it began to bug me more and more. I realized the movie was just bits and pieces of other movies all jammed together. I liked the resulting whole, but as with any meal of leftovers was a just an echo of the fine meal that created it. (Except for cold meatloaf sandwiches, of course. Make your own mayo for extra points.)

  13. The worst depiction of zombies ever was Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”.

  14. From what I hear (correct me if I’m wrong) IAL’s “zombies” not only more fast, but are generally agile, and [heresy!!!] are capable of complex thought. Say it ain’t so!

    It ain’t so. First of all, if you have read the book you will be cursing the screen during this movie. The book is a favorite of mine and Smith completely and utterly fails to get the point and/or deliberately reverses it.

    The “zombies” are 1) CGI, 2) super fast, and 3) totally rabidly insane. They set a trap for Smith but nothing else they do indicates higher thought.

    The movie is a fucking travesty. Luckily I have access to DVDs from the Oscar Academy and didn’t have to pay to see the damn thing.

  15. Elemenope,

    The “zombies” in IAL are really mutated plague survivors. Like, 28DL, IAL is not a zombie movie at all.

    Also, I would also like to add that I hope there is a hell and that Will Smith and the makers of I Am Legend will burn there for all eternity.

  16. I loved 28 Days Later in the theater, but later it began to bug me more and more. I realized the movie was just bits and pieces of other movies all jammed together.

    I had the exact same reaction. I was caught up in it, but as soon as I had some time to think about it I started saying “WTF was that?” It ripped off so many others, like Day of the Dead.

  17. I have always been a fan of werewolves; even doing my bit to write a few tales in the genre. I do get sick of all the shows/movies about vampires.

    I resisted the temptation to see IAL and went for the book instead. Why are filmmakers so tempted just to turn to zombies as a cop-out when they need a nasty? Surely they can be a bit more original?

  18. Epi,

    28DL was the opening scene from The Day of the Triffids (novel) and then a condensed version of the first three Romero Dead movies. Night is the initial phases of Jim hiding with the family in the high-rise, Dawn is the scenes of the four of them traveling to a “safe” place and the looting of the grocery store, Day is the insane military guys trying to train zombies in the mansion.

    I do like how the all the blame falls on animal rights activists. A nice modern twist on the “mad scientist meddle with forces beyond motral ken.”

  19. “The Last Man on Earth” with Vincent Price is a pretty decent flick. It’s another take on IAL, although I have no idea how closely it followed the book since I’ve never it. The infected but shambling zombie/vamps were somewhat lame, but still not bad for 1964.

  20. SugarFree,

    Yes, I see where the story arc parallels the Dead Trilogy.

    I also found there to be a lot of similarities between it and John Christopher’s No Blade of Grass. Especially at the gas station.

  21. Andrew Ian Dodge,

    It’s because IAL is a remake of Omega Man and not an adaption of the novel. The movie also has a huge and unacknowledged debt to The World, The Flesh, and The Devil, which starred my favorite apocalypse movie actress Inger Stevens. Now that’s a girl to go through the end of the world with!

  22. Miggs, The Last Man on Earth does a pretty good job of following the book (I would say it does the best job of it, I Am Legend, and The Omega Man), but even it doesn’t fully capture the point of the book. Smith had an opportunity to do it right and the Scientologist asshole just ignored it.

    What science fiction classic will Will Smith destroy next? He needs to be stopped.

  23. Epi,

    There’s was something bugging me about the gas station scene for awhile. Thanks. Time to read No Blade again.

  24. Epi,

    His next cinematic shit-stain is a superhero movie.

    Hancock

    I saw an extended preview of it. Ugh.

    And then this abortion, starring that other great Scientologist thespian of our age, Barry Pepper. Check out the co-stars. No, Rosario Dawson! No!

  25. For those who say that Will Smith missedor reversed the point of the original story, could you be more specific?

    I saw the movie, but did not read the book. The movie felt hollow, however, so I’m wondering why.

  26. Wow, both of those sound awful. But I’m sure he’ll destroy another classic soon. Kevin Costner already got to The Postman. Maybe Smith can do The White Mountains/The City of Gold and Lead/The Pool of Fire, or The Big Time? Or some Heinlein?

  27. Sugarfree, thanks.

  28. For those who say that Will Smith missedor reversed the point of the original story, could you be more specific?

    There’s a lot, but here is a quick summary:

    The book involves mutated (but not very) humans who now have vampiric qualities, such as sensitivity to light and sleeping during the day. Neville (who, unlike Smith, drinks heavily every night) hunts them during the day and kills them while they sleep. He is the only unaffected human as far as he can tell.

    Every night the vampires come out and try to get him to leave his fortified house. The female vampires expose themselves to him, promise him sex if comes out (he is unspeakably lonely), but he knows they will kill him. This goes on every night for a long time.

    He finally encounters a woman who is out during the day. He brings her home, and tries to figure out why she is OK (he has started doing research into biology to try and figure this out. In the book he is not a scientist.)

    However, shortly after, she lets in the vampires–because she is one of them. There are many “vampires” who have retained their sanity and are creating a new society, and they are sick and tired of Neville hunting and killing them.

    They sentence him to death. As he is standing in his cell, he can see the crowd of “new” humans waiting for his execution, and he realizes that he is in fact their boogeyman. He was the monster that came and killed while they slept.

    That is when he thinks to himself, “I am legend.”

    The girl then brings him some poison so he can commit suicide before being executed, which he does.

    A little different than the movie, eh?

  29. John-David,

    The worst depiction of zombies ever was Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”.

    Yeah, no kidding. The most overrated music video of all time. I can see why it belongs in the history books, but the greatest music video? Puh-leeeeeeeeeeeeeease!!!! The video for “Billie Jean” is at least 10x better, and Jackson topped that just a few years later with the bizarre (relatively speaking–after all we’re talking about Jacko here) docudrama of “Leave Me Alone,” probably his best work in the form.

    It’s kinda mind-boggling how music videos somehow keep afloat what are otherwise clear turkeys. “Thriller” is actually the worst song on the eponymous classic album, just as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is the weakest track on Nevermind. And I won’t even go into the interminably boring scribbles by Peter Gabriel. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say I’ll take any B zombie movies over this kind of drivel any day.

  30. “Land of the Dead” was such a lame movie, that it is hard for me to enjoy George Romero’s early stuff anymore. I mean, that movie REALLY REALLY sucked. It is clear to me Night of the Living Dead, and Dawn of the Dead were completly random (a million monkeys filming a million zombie movies, eventually a monkey will come up with a good one by pure chance), and the guy has no talent.

  31. I’ve always thought werewolves are very underrated, but that’s just me.
    I’m not a werewolf nut, there is nothing about them in particular that would make me obsess over them, but I’ve noticed that werewolf movies 9/10 tend to be awesome. I think it’s because the only people who attempt to make a movie about them are the type of people who do obsess over werewolves.

    Also, Ginger Snaps is the greatest movie ever made.

  32. 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.

    My subversive take on Romero and race relations:

    You know, listening to the black hero in the original Night of the Living Dead is what got everyone killed. How did the black guy survive the night? By barricading himself in the basement, which is what the white racist guy wanted to do in the first place. But noooooo. The black hero wasn’t having any of that — not until after the zombies had killed all of the white people. Hmmmm. Maybe that was the plan.

  33. i haven’t seem the omega man or i am legend but “last man on earth” is one of vincent price’s best films. they should have remade that with brad douriff or christopher walken not will smith.

  34. you are so wrong rhino. the man does have talent. see “the crazies”, “knightriders” and especially “martin”. martin is indisputably a great film as far as i’m concerned.

  35. Sorry Rex, but Romero is great. Just don’t watch anything after The Dark Half.

  36. I like British costume dramas.

  37. In this post-Max Brooks era, when every horror fan has thought through the logistics of a zombie attack…

    Flame throwers. The zombies get wiped out in a matter of hours. Really, zombies are only a threat to unarmed people trapped in a confined area.

  38. Franklin Harris,

    Use a flame-thrower on a zombie and all you get is a zombie that’s on fire.

    No es bueno.

  39. As we were taught in The Running Man, flamethrowers can too easily turn against you.

    Guns, guns, guns, people.

  40. Possible SPoiler alert

    I just saw ‘Diary’ and it was ok, but nothing great. The girl’s narration was annoying, seemed like she was trying to be deep. It seemed like Romero was trying to speak to today’s youth, but he was trying too hard. The kid with the camera was a total jerkoff, I don’t know why the others stayed with him as long as they did. And there really wasn’t that much zombie action in this movie, there were barely any zombies. Pretty cool to see a zombie killed by having a jar of acid smashed on his head, and stumbling around as the acid ate through his skull. Oh well. Looking forward to seeing ‘The Zombie Diaries,’ anybody know when that comes out?

  41. The kid with the camera was a total jerkoff,

    In Cloverfield, I kept having a hard time with the way the camera dude kept a death grip on the camera even when he was running for, or fighting for, his life.

  42. 28DL was the opening scene from The Day of the Triffids (novel) and then a condensed version of the first three Romero Dead movies. Night is the initial phases of Jim hiding with the family in the high-rise, Dawn is the scenes of the four of them traveling to a “safe” place and the looting of the grocery store, Day is the insane military guys trying to train zombies in the mansion.

    Now that’s a viewer who pays attention. Well done.

  43. Weigel gets it basically right – Romero has made a moderately entertaining B-movie which is marred by his pretentious attempts at social commentary. My favorite meaningful line on the film, delivered with great weight by the annoying female narrator: “It used to be us against us. Now it’s us against them – but they are us!” Wow, that’s … meaningless.

  44. “And I won’t even go into the interminably boring scribbles by Peter Gabriel”

    Sledgehammer is a great song.

  45. B,

    I have this great urge, and I forget just what it takes. And yet I guess it makes me smile. And eureka! I found it hard, it’s hard to find. Oh well, whatever, nevermind.

    Ok, bad Cobain (and maybe Archimedes) joke. Now a heartfelt (you thought I’d say “heart-shaped,” did ya?) piece of suggestion: It’s probably not very wise to go by the name B when the (supposed) discussion topic is B (that’s a capital B) zombie movies.

    And yeah, Sledgehammer is a great song. Great as pronounced by hacks–I’m sorry, critics–and rock aesthetes whose numbers are apparently more obscene–eh, higher (sorry again)–than I can fathom. Great in the sense that L’Internationale is supposed to be international. IOW: B-O-R-I-N-G.

    Seriously, who do you prefer: Peter Gabriel or the Spice Girls? I know whose music I’d rather listen to. Say what you will about the Girls, but before they became the Botoxed Grannies they actually had these things called tunes. The Girls didn’t give a hoot whether there’s a difference between mbalax and mbaqanga, or whether the two were actual musical genres or a joke involving messed-up crossword puzzles. For some artists entertainment comes first, for others only entertainment is first. The Girls belonged to the latter group, with whom I have no problem. Peter Gabriel belonged to neither, with which I do have a problem.

    So there it is, if you care what I think. And last but definitely not least: GIRL POWER! (For the record I’m a guy, but “Boy Power” sounds so sexist and misogynist.)

  46. George Romero dislikes everything but zombies.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.