Monday, June 23, 2008

Diary of the Dead (2008)

There are few movies that can be said to have changed the face of modern horror. TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. HALLOWEEN. The number drops even lower when you consider the impact of a franchise on modern horror.

But how often is it that the second or third film in a franchise continues to change the way we think, view, and more importantly film horror? If George A. Romero and his series of classic DEAD films don't immediately spring to mind, chances are you may be a shuffling, mindless ghoul yourself.

The history of the series, the social commentary that inhabit them, and the frustration and challenges that each film underwent to come to life make up a story in and of themselves. The fights over ownership of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and the abomination of the anniversary edition complete with "newly shot footage" (all done without Romero's participation or consent). The long struggle to bring the fourth film (originally titled TWILIGHT OF THE DEAD) out of development Hell and into reality as LAND OF THE DEAD, a film I still say stands proudly along the others, even if it sits a little lower. So when rumors started to float about another DEAD film, one that would be completely independent of studio control and that would invite the guerrilla spirit of the first film, I was in 100%. The Man had a plan, and he was going to take things in an entirely new direction. Witness the initial outbreak from the glass eyes that dominate the cultural landscape, where nothing is real unless you see it on TV. Skewer the media, comment on America's growing obsession with voyeurism as a means to distance our selves from reality, and maybe scare the pants off us in the bargain.

Well, DIARY OF THE DEAD tries really hard to do all those things, but unfortunately falls flat because of one gigantic issue that, try as I might, I could not see past.

This is some of the worst acting I've ever seen.

The story is edited together by survivor Debra from the footage shot by her asinine boyfriend Jason, a film student shooting a no-budget horror film with his friends/classmates for his senior project. At the outset you're told through narration that this is going to look like a movie, it's even cued with music because the intent is to scare enough people to wake them up to what's happening across the country. It's a great concept, and interspersed throughout the "edit" are clips from television, radio, and Internet broadcasts that Romero uses to expand and color both the world the characters are inhabiting and to highlight the social commentary. And it's all great stuff, but unfortunately it's background to the main story of these film students trying to get across Pennsylvania.

And brother, you have never seen performances this hackneyed and boring.

Some of the blame does fall on Romero's script, which has plenty of brilliance but is also saddled with silly cliches and character quirks that drag everything down. The professor, always looking for the next drink while offering insipid observations that hit the ground like a dead bird. Who also, it must be noted, was apparently a soldier and an archery champion if you're to believe his actions. There's a southern belle who actually screams "Don't mess with Texas" at one point. And I hesitate to even mention the deaf Amish farmer, except to say that for some reason I found him to be one of the more endearing characters in the film. Everyone plays a "type" of role instead of embodying a character. I know our country's youth is supposed to be jaded and desensitized to violence thanks to video games and Sylvester Stallone movies (BTW, I really liked RAMBO - just sayin'), but the zombies exhibit more personality than the living.

I hate that DIARY OF THE DEAD is as bad as it is, because there are some excellent ideas and sequences that, had they been better acted, would have been wonderful. There's a town everyone's abandoned except for a black militant group, who explain that if this is what it took to give them a chance, they're going to take every advantage of it. There's the constant murmurings from the radios and televisions sets, including a great cameo by Romero in a bit that captures our fears of how the Media really operates. Even the main argument between the leads about choosing to film events instead of actively participating in securing their survival is inspired, but fails because we don't care one bit about the people having the argument.

DIARY OF THE DEAD is a huge disappointment, a great concept that is killed in it's execution. I checked and found that Romero is already working on a sequel. Let's hope that whatever comes out fixes the gross errors of judgment inherent in this one.

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