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Movie Review: Diary of the Dead

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It was a gloomy scene both inside and out. Gloomy inside because outside it was sunny-bright and barbecue-hot, and "perfect beach weather" as the saying goes, making it all the more depressing for those of us who cherish the cooler Autumn months.

Inside the library, not even the sombre and ominous strains of Midnight Syndicate's The Rage soundtrack could assuage Zombos' contortions across the various furnishings at regular intervals. For Autumn people like us, summer is that seasonal aberration, a temperate nuisance we must endure before the joys of the grayer October Country days take precedence.

The Fantasy Clock on the mantelpiece stuttered the slow passing of time. I put down the book I was reading, 41 Stories by O. Henry, to see if I could charge Zombos with enough energy to get him out of his summer doldrums. His latest contortion had him slumped across the emerald-green velvet upholstered Sleepy Hollow chair.

"How about watching Edges of Darkness in the cinematorium?" I asked. "It's got vampires fretting over their human food supply when zombies invade their home turf?"

Zombos moaned.

"Then how about we go to Adventure Land and we ride the Haunted House again and again?" I asked.

Zombos moaned louder.

I tossed over the scintillating premiere issue of Scarlet: The Film Magazine to him: no galvanic response. Van Helsing's Journal of World Fantastica produced no spark, either. Damn, this was more serious than I thought.

In the hallway, Zimba and Zombos Jr's going-to-Jones-Beach clamour chided us, by intention, as they rushed past the library door. Zombos Jr. made a point of banging his sand toys loudly, and Zimba clip-clopped more heavily in her flip-flops. A whiff of suntan lotion floated into the library causing Zombos' pearly-white skin to sneeze through his nose in allergic terror at the thought of hot sunlight roasting it in cocoa butter.

Chef Machiavelli, another beach-lover, happily joined them in their sandy debauchery. He stuck his head into the room as he hurried off. "Severese," he said with a wink, pointing in the direction of the kitchen.

Zombos sprung to action. The magic bullet had hit its target dead center. For an aging dilettante of horror movies, he sure could throttle into high gear when Brooklyn Italian Ices were in licking distance. His favorite is Jelly Ring, by the way, and mine is Pistachio. We raided the walk-in freezer and devoured large quantities of deliciously flavored ice like zombies chewing on a cornered victim.

"Speaking of zombies," I began to say, verbalizing my thought.

"What's that?" asked Zombos, going for thirds.

"Why don't we watch Romero's Diary of the Dead. Zombies and Italian Ices go together well, you know.

He looked at me for a second; I was not sure if out of perplexity or sudden brain freeze. "Capital idea!" he said. We loaded up with a generous round of Italian Ice flavors before heading to the cinematorium.

Only George Romero can mix the insatiable appetites of zombies and mass media into visually and emotionally pleasing, melt-in-your-mouth flavors of terror borne from helplessness and an uncertain future. With ostensibly empowering digital technology at their disposal, his survivors in Diary of the Dead can only use it to record, for posterity, humanity's fall from grace enveloping them, eventually pushing them into their last refuge, a panic room built for the wealthy family now lurching alongside the rest of the undead. It is the single-minded, unceasing use of the mouth (zombies munching on human chew-toys) contrasted against the unblinking public eye (documenting "the truth" to upload to YouTube) through which Romero seasons his apocalypse with the question "to what purpose for either?"

While the familiar zombie cinematic landscape is directed all too often with repetitive swatches of gory masticatory closeups and ever more agile, superhuman undead predators acting like werewolves, Romero still keeps it simple: the futile struggle between living and undead is always his focal point, and his characters–the breathing ones–struggle as best their emotional mindsets will let them. His zombies remain, as always, fearful and pitiable at the same time: pitiable because their mindless hunger can never be satisfied, but fearful as it still remains a very stress-inducing habit for the rest of frightened humanity. This time around, his dead-that-won't-die are a shade different: they are more malevolent in appearance and intent, and a bit more spry when their next meal is in biting distance.

A clue to Romero's continued mastery of the genre he slam-dunked into theaters with Night of the Living Dead is given when spoiled rich kid Ridley's family winds up in the swimming pool after becoming consumers of a different kind. The water-blurred image of his mom and dad, girlfriend, and domestic staff standing at the bottom of the pool is sublime macabre poetry only Romero would take the time to write with his camera.

We see this unfolding "Death of Death" mostly through the camera lens of Jason Creed (Joshua Close); first as he and his film school friends shoot a horror film in the desolate woods at night, and later because of his unstoppable goal to record everything. Like the zombies he encounters, he will not be deterred from this goal, although, ultimately, it may prove equally futile. Defending his unstoppable hunger to record and post everything his camera sees to the Internet, it is unclear if he's really sincere about getting the truth out, or more excited about the seventy-thousand plus hits he's getting on YouTube.

News of the plague stops the filming of the "fictional" horror movie and sends everyone to either go home or search for significant others. While Ridley races off to the safety of his family's mansion, the others drive–in their Winnebago (a poor man's Dead Reckoning from Land of the Dead)– to the desolate university dorm to find Jason's strong-willed girlfriend Debra (Michelle Morgan). Once she's found, her goal is to get back home to her family. Professor Maxwell (Scott Wentworth), a melodramatic boozer mentoring his students, tags along. Maxwell sees everything in broad philosophical strokes tinged with world-weary dramatics, but he does wield a wicked bow and arrow, an elegant weapon for a more civilized time, which fits his temperament and aim well. At any point you expect to hear "tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps forth in this petty pace…" from his lips; instead, he does get in a well-timed "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times." And the worst of times keeps getting worse in this season of darkness.

Their first encounter with one toasted marshmallow zombie at a blazing car wreck leaves them shaken and minus one Christian driver, Mary (Tatiana Maslany), who attempts suicide out of guilt thinking she has run over survivors at the accident scene. Her friends rush her to a desolate hospital. Jason has to plug in when his camera battery starts dying, so he stubbornly stays behind when they go in search of help. Without his camera, Jason is sightless and helpless, and with his camera he isn't much help. Left alone with the dying Mary, who could become a zombie any moment, Jason's nerves begin firing big time.

Other clues to Romero's mastery of the genre are found in how his zombies effortlessly move in and out of our attention, and his fluid building of suspense and uncertainty through use of silence and ominous distant sounds heard in desolate rooms, through open doors, and down empty hallways. There is also a little pause his zombies take whenever confronting the living. Is it confusion or, maybe, just the short time it takes for them to recognize a new food source? Whichever, it is quickly replaced with an eagerness to chow-down, and here Romero accentuates horror with gore, not to disgust but to terrify. Skirmishes with zombies in the hospital bring home the fact that it is really happening, with a defibrillator put to eye-popping good use for added measure. Shooting zombies in the head, while necessary, can become boring to watch after awhile, so judicious use of bow and arrow–and broadsword–can be quite bracing when used to dispatch an errant zombie or two, or just in two where the broadsword is concerned. Of course Professor Maxwell, being an erudite sort of dude, proves adept at wielding both. 

Jason's girlfriend Debra is adept at getting what she wants, and what she wants is to go home to her family. Along the way, their journey is interrupted by a broken-down Winnebago and a run-in with a newly formed militia stockpiling weapons and supplies. Samuel, an Amish farmer, provides temporary humor and sanctuary as they work on the Winnebago. Fresh air loving zombies begin surrounding the barn, however, so they must make haste in their escape.Their encounter with the militia affords Jason the opportunity to upload his recording to YouTube, and for them to stock up on weapons and food. It also gives Romero the opportunity for a 1970's-styled dig at the civil rights movement (or lack of movement) and illustrating another nifty–CGI–way to dispatch a zombie in their midst through a industrial solvent-induced dissolving brain.

Romero intersperses mass media footage of calamities, some of it stock footage taken from actual news stories, throughout the ordeal, implying that just because you can show it, it doesn't mean you can control it. Other YouTube uploads show the crisis reaching worldwide, with authorities overwhelmed and powerless to stop it. Unlike the 1950's B-movie military or scientific community, today's authority figures in horror movies are depicted as ineffective and helpless when faced with catastrophe, even given to manipulating the truth when it suits them. A fanciful notion to be sure, but an effective one. Lucky for us that never happens in real life.

Finally reaching her home, her mom, dad, and little brother are happy to see her, but not for the reasons she expected. Professor Maxwell shows us his mettle as his bow and arrows thwack into necessary action. On the road again, the only place left to go is Ridley's mansion. It's big, lavish, and still appears safe. They find Ridley, oddly still dressed in his monster movie mummy costume, all alone. He's been holed up in the panic room while his family has been bobbing up and down in the swimming pool, exceeding the Guinness World Record for staying under water.  He put everyone there after they and the servants became infected. But not to worry, Ridley was bitten, too, so family togetherness will win out–in a sort of twisted Frank Capra way. On the plus side he finally gets the mummy shuffle right and lurches exactly the way Jason wanted him to do when he was acting. This time he's much more into his role as a zombie.

It is not always easy to understand Romero's deeper intentions when his zombies go hungry, but even without discussing the political, social, and philosophical nuances he usually brings to his apocalyptic stories, you can enjoy them for what they truly are: always entertaining excursions into a world where the struggle for survival is measured one bite at a time. Romero should make his next film Professor Maxwell and Debra, Zombie Hunters With Attitude. I would like to see more of the Max and Debra shoot, skewer, and cleave rancid zombie butt. They seem to have a real knack for it.

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About ILoz Zoc

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    All hail the return of Zombos. Please let me know when you collect these and have them printed.

  • ILoz Zoc

    Thanks El Bicho!