“Zombies—” as Homer Simpson might put it, “Is there anything they can’t do?” Indeed, in the 40 years since George A. Romero introduced the modern zombie in Night of the Living Dead, these walking corpses have become our representative boogeymen, standing for or putting into relief any number of Big Issues: racism, conformism, the Vietnam War, consumerism, militarism, class divides and Bush-era fear mongering. This legacy is due to the one-man mission of Romero, whose Dead series has survived all imitators and, even with 2005’s disappointing post-9/11 critique Land of the Dead, a recent glut of genre-savvy spoofs (Shaun of the Dead, Fido) and empty-headed, adrenaline-amped updates (Resident Evil, the Dawn of the Dead remake and zombie-ish 28 Days/Weeks Later).
I can imagine the Romero wannabes, with all their irony and spectacle, have given the Pittsburgh director an impetus to make zombies meaningful again, to revive them, so to say, as the metaphorical contagions and avatars of Otherness (though, lest we forget — THEY ARE US) they were meant to be. But Romero’s latest, Diary of the Dead, raises stakes to an unprecedented degree: it’s by far the most self-reflexive, stylistically experimental and politically undisguised of the Dead series. Two colleagues cited it as a moral answer to the unscrupulous first-person video gimmick of 9/11 thrill ride Cloverfield, but Diary might also be an awkwardly conscious consideration of media representation and the ethics of the camera Cloverfield brings to light in its blissfully unconscious way. Not that I mind a zombie movie with a brain (heh heh), Romero’s been doing that all along, but Diary is too often lead-footed and heavy handed, more preach than screech, even if critical.
In many ways, the film that Diary of the Dead most resembles, strangely enough, is Redacted (to those who dismissed De Palma’s film outright but support Diary — your excuses better be good). Presented as a salvaged documentary (music added in post-production) by film school student Jason Creed (Josh Close), who begins capturing the chaos of the unfolding zombie apocalypse while shooting his cheese horror project, Diary examines the impossibility of objective reportage and the diminishing reliability of images in a mediascape where the proliferation of images renders truth ever more elusive. Here Romero unmasks the seamlessness of mock found footage like Cloverfield even as he similarly regards catastrophe through the shaky privilege of the digital eye. When Jason and crew increasingly experience the carnage around them as content to be viewed by a future audience, however, a less successful line of inquiry is undertaken: What Makes Us Want to Watch? Despite a wink-nudge description of Jason’s film’s “underlying thread of social satire,” Diary fails to say much about the humanity-draining and illusion-fostering allure of violent images that moralizers like Natural Born Killers haven’t already. Romero’s visual metaphors are frequently ingenious — the thrill of holding the camera becomes as infectious as a zombie bite — but other ideas are gracelessly executed, as with several breaks in the action narrated by Jason’s girlfriend, Debra (Michelle Morgan), who ponders Big Issues over real and manufactured disaster footage. They’re the kinds of montages shown in first-year film classes, and though that may be the meta-joke, they’re also too much in accord with the ponderous, telegraphed messages of the rest of Diary for it to be scarily funny or even, as the best humor so often is, hilariously disturbing. Opens February 15