Diary of the Dead Review
Written by: Tim Hannigan
Last night in Toronto a few hundred lucky film-goers got to experience something phenomenal. While people lined Yonge street to catch a glimpse of “Brangelina” down at the Elgin, an eclectic mix of film fans lined the streets around Ryerson University to experience something truly fantastical – the World Premiere of George A. Romero’s “Diary of the Dead”.
Before the first frame of film rolled it was already a sight to behold. People of all ages and all walks of life were bursting with anticipation like a bunch of kids on Christmas morning. We were not just there to see any film or any filmmaker. We were there to see, for the first time anywhere, a new George A. Romero “Dead” film. I planned ahead and arrived two hours early, and the line-up was already long at 10:00 p.m. I felt sorry for the people standing in the “Rush line” because I can’t imagine that there were any tickets available.
When the crowd finally got to move inside (they should really change the name of Midnight Madness to 12:15 Madness because it is never underway on time) you could feel the energy in the air. I managed to find seats behind the reserved area, and noticed Dario Argento sitting three rows in front of me!
When George A. Romero took to the stage the crowd erupted in applause, greeting the master with a standing ovation. Everyone in the theatre could feel that they were in the presence of greatness. I am certain everyone in the audience will cherish the experience of being the first film audience to see this movie.
For horror fans, George A. Romero is the most important filmmaker ever to pick up a camera. He is the person that gave birth to the modern horror genre. His DNA can be seen in almost every horror filmmaker that has followed.
What truly separates Romero from many horror filmmakers, however, is that he does not set out to make a movie which just scares people. His films are made because they have a strong theme. His films are a reflection of the times in which they are made, an exploration of social and moral values. Romero is acutely aware that when conflict and crisis are applied to people, their true colours emerge. Each of his “Dead” films reflects the era in which they were made. Civil rights, consumerism, Reganomics, George Bush anti-terror exploitation – Romero has always shown that he has a finger firmly placed on the pulse of Western society.
With “Diary of the Dead” Romero explores modern culture by going back to the beginning of the zombie phenomenon. With each of his Dead films since “Dawn of the Dead” (note: if you’re reading this and think that I’m talking about a film starring Sarah Polley and Ving Rhames please step away from the computer and kick yourself in the ass for me) the crisis has already begun, and we watch characters deal with the aftermath. In “Diary” we start with people who are living out their lives when suddenly reports start to roll in of the dead returning to life. Some believe the stories are a hoax, others characterize the events as isolated incidents, but the early reports quickly snowball into a global crisis.
“Diary of the Dead” begins with a group of film students and their professor shooting a mummy film in an isolated area. As they begin to pack up for the night, they hear reports of the crisis unfolding on the radio. One of the filmmakers decides to record the events as they unfold with his camera. What we see is essentially his footage – a first person point of view of the crisis erupting from ground zero. We follow the group of students as they pack up a camper and try to make it to their respective families outside of Pittsburgh. Sticking to rural roads, we get a first hand account of their journey as they question whether the stories are true, and are confronted with the reality that the dead are coming to life. We watch them struggle with the loss of their loved ones, and the loss of the safety net we expect to protect us. We watch as they encounter others struggling with the crisis, including a group African Americans left to fend for themselves in the crisis. As the group encounters terror upon terror – we watch.
In the last few years, we have been inundated with zombie films. Everything from “28 Days Later” to “Resident Evil” – the more zombie films that get produced, the more the sub-genre seems to get watered down. This movie, however, is something completely different from any zombie film you have seen before. Romero brings a fresh, original vision of terror and mayhem as only the master of the genre can.
When you go into this movie you need to be prepared for the way it unfolds. There is no crazy editing, no fancy camera work, and no massive explosions. Don’t expect to see thousands of zombies gathered in a monstrous horde. This is a low budget film, which is shot first person. If the character holding the camera doesn’t see it – we don’t see it. Many of the scenes are one long take from the character’s point of view. As the film moves forward, a second camera is introduced, allowing some cutting back and forth in order to experience two points of view. Aside from that, there are just a few security cameras which are incorporated into the film footage, and some video feeds which the students downloaded from the internet.
It’s amazing to behold how much this film is reflective of what is happening today. The film explores how we are controlled by the media and the spin that they want to put on events. It also considers how the media is slowly losing that power in a global community where people walk around with video cameras and have access to thousands and millions of people through the internet. From blogging to “YouTube” the media moguls no longer control everything, as everyday people are able to capture images and deliver them to the masses (though arguably everyday people have a spin as well).
The movie also considers the “rubbernecker” phenomenon. We are in a world where people “stop and look, but don’t stop and help”. From car accidents to news coverage of tragedies like Hurricane Katrina, our society can’t help but watch others in crisis. The film itself is presented as real people recording this terrible event for us to see. We, the audience, watch it first hand with a camera lens to protect us.
Now – don’t get me wrong – there is much more to this film than examining the mass media society we live in. If you’re hungry for some “gorey” with your allegory – you won’t be disappointed. Given the manner in which the film is shot, however, you will not see the massive feeding frenzies you have witnessed in the past. Let’s face it – if a horde of zombies start feeding on someone in front of you, you’re probably not going to stick around to record every detail. You will see plenty of headshots, and the characters are not the only ones spilling their guts in front of the camera. The film also has one of the most memorable zombie kills in any zombie film…which I won’t spoil for you.
The film is also very FUNNY! There is an amazing sequence featuring a deaf/mute Amish man who provides the group with some temporary shelter and some chalkboard advice.
The acting is generally quite good, though the characters are not as memorable as the characters in previous “Dead” films. Then again, the fact that the characters are not all that interesting adds to the reality. They are real people who don’t have some intricate backstory – ordinary people in an extraordinary situation. The directing of course is fantastic. Special effects are very well done, and are incorporated seamlessly into the footage to make the events appear real.
If you want fast cuts and fast action go play a videogame. If you’re ready for a first hand account of the zombie crisis unfolding in a realistic manner then you will find a film that is funny, intelligent and truly terrifying. Thank you Mr. Romero for helping us “Stay Scared”!