Monthly Archives: November 2013

Diary of the Dead (2007)

Diary of the Dead 2

After the disappointment that was 2005’s Land of the Dead, a film with too many ideas but not enough power, I had mixed feelings going into Diary. On the one hand, it’s impossible to ignore the biting criticisms that pursue all of Romero’s later films, and yet, on the other hand, Diary sees a return to the indie zombie movie (independently produced, the budget here is $13 million dollars less than its direct predecessor), which in turn suggests a return to the raw and brave ideas present in Night. However, despite this being a passion project for Romero – a film that does away with cheap Hollywood thrills in favour of politics and social commentary – the results are underwhelming to say the least.

Rather than be a direct sequel to Land, Diary goes back to the time of the initial outbreak, and according to Romero is a “rejigging off the myth”. The entire film is narrated by Michelle Morgan as Debra, the girlfriend of University film student Jason (Joshua Close), and together they record the apocalyptic events on hand-held cameras. Released in the United States in February of 2008, Diary is one of many found footage films to have graced our screens, with REC, Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity all following soon after. Unfortunately, this means that, watching it in 2013, its style feels labored. I would even go as far to say that the shots are too steady considering that these are meant to be scenes shot by people on the run from flesh-eating zombies. Debra’s incessant, dreary moralising is both tacky and exhausting, and when paired with slow-mo effects, the results are cringeworthy.

I get what Romero was trying to do with this, but to “get it” is not enough. Yes, the messages are adventurous: the film delves into the dark side of humanity by exploring our need to document and watch, rather than help and take action. However, its questions of morality and ethics are simply repeated too often. Interestingly, Jason’s obsession with keeping a record of events, and Debra’s disgust at his enthusiasm for filming everything, can be linked to one of Sarah and John’s conversations in Day of the Dead, the the third film in Romero’s original trilogy. Sarah wishes to stay in the underground bunker and keep track of her experiments, something which John doesn’t understand (excuse the long quote):

John: We don’t believe in what you’re doing here, Sarah. Hey, you know what they keep down here in this cave? Man, they got the books and the records of the top 100 companies. They got the Defense Department budget down here. And they got the negatives for all your favorite movies. They got microfilm with tax return and newspaper stories. They got immigration records, census reports, and they got the accounts of all the wars and plane crashes and volcano eruptions and earthquakes and fires and floods and all the other disasters that interrupted the flow of things in the good ole U.S. of A. Now what does it matter, Sarah darling? All this filing and record keeping? We ever gonna give a shit? We even gonna get a chance to see it all?

What this quote sadly proves is the redundancy of Diary of the Dead itself. The film uses its zombie epidemic as nothing more than a stage on which to ask a bunch of questions which have already been asked a thousand times before, and proved unanswerable. Sarah responds to John’s rant by saying “what I’m doing… is all there’s left to do“. Documenting is what keeps her feeling sane, and yet at the end of the film, she must accept life post-apocalypse (whilst still doing some minor “record keeping” in the form of a makeshift calender). Jason and Debra’s philosophical ramblings are 22 years late.

Ultimately, I feel as though Diary could have done with being part of a series of online shorts exploring the outbreak from different angles. As an hour-and-a-half long film it is a struggle to sit through, not helped at all by poor acting (Scott Wentworth’s character Andrew feels like a “Giles from Buffy” impersonation gone wrong) and a serious lack of scares or shocks. Not once did I jump with fright, and if there’s any one reason to hate a zombie movie, it’s that it doesn’t terrify you in the slightest.

FINAL VERDICT: ★ 1/2

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Land of the Dead (2005)

Land of the Dead

Mike: They’re pretending to be alive…
Riley: Isn’t that what we’re doing? Pretending to be alive?

I’m going to start by being annoying and say that this film could have been great. Not game changing, like Night of the Living Dead, the black-and-white budget film that started it all, or the brilliantly satirical Dawn of the Dead that followed, but great. Its ideas are all there: the undesirable zombie population is evolving, and poses a serious threat to a dwindling population of humans who lock themselves away in a fenced-off city in Pittsburgh divided into rich and poor. The elite live in a high-rise named Fiddler’s Green, served by the rest of the population who live in poverty. Naturally, class struggle is a big theme, as the audience begins to realise that the working class of the city have more in common with the undead outside than they do with the suited and booted “aristocracy”, led by Paul Kaufman (played by Dennis Hopper).

Kaufman is the face of the makeshift city, and is responsible for reinstating America’s social structure post-apocalypse as he makes sure that only the “best people” are allowed access in to his privileged world. Fiddler’s Green’s inhabitants depend on the workers below for food and supplies, and it is down to Riley Denbo (Simon Baker) and his crew to venture out beyond the borders and gather as much as they can to bring back to the city. They travel around in a heavily armoured vehicle named Dead Reckoning, which not only provides safety for those inside, but also works as a zombie-killing machine, blasting fireworks into the sky in order to dazzle the monsters before blowing them to smithereens. Cholo (John Leguizamo), second in command of the Dead Reckoning, also serves as Kaufman’s personal assistant and regularly picks up luxuries that go directly to him. Feeling that he deserves a place at Fiddler’s Green for his efforts, it is Cholo’s bitterness at being refused entry that sets off the main action of the film. And of course, whilst the humans are preoccupied with their own dramas, they are oblivious to the changes going on within the zombie “community”, all of whom are learning to wield weapons aimed right at the heads of those who slaughter and “suppress” them.

Sounds brilliant, right? Wrong. Unfortunately, despite this film having the biggest budget of all of the ‘Dead’ films ($15 million in comparison to Dawn of the Dead‘s $650,000 [around $1 million in today’s terms], for example), it is the one that squanders its potential most disastrously. Most of the film disappointingly centres around Riley and his friends Slack (Asia Argento) and Charlie (Robert Joy) attempting to track down fugitive Cholo, and unfortunately the characters and acting combined are nowhere near enough to make this narrative thread worth investing in emotionally. Throwaway side-characters such as Pretty Boy, Mouse, Anchor, Foxy, Manolete, Motown and Pilsbury confuse proceedings and serve very little purpose, meaning that even at a mere 93 minutes, the story drags. Baker is mildly interesting in the leading role, but always looks somewhat disinterested, and Argento is wooden at best, forcing a feistiness that feels unoriginal. When a film’s main characters are so tedious, it is hard to care about anything that happens to them, and you end up watching people being eaten alive with a numbing disinterest that doesn’t suit such blood-soaked violence.

Thankfully, the zombies themselves are on good form, led by the powerful Big Daddy who is the first to show signs of increased intelligence. Despite not communicating with his comrades via any kind of discernable language, he manages to teach them all to use guns and travel underwater, thus enabling a planned attack on the city. Bub’s behaviour in Day of the Dead had suggested that Romero would eventually lead his undead down this path; whilst other zombie movies at the time were focusing on giving their creatures an advantage through speed and strength (*cough* 28 Days Later *cough*), the Dead films were focusing instead on the quiet menace of brain power. Feeding into the metaphors that have always pervaded Romero’s films, the resourceful and ingenious zombie uprising here can stand as a representation of the supressed “Other” coming at loggerheads with the “capitalist oppressor” (Kaufman). The zombies are the exploited workers, the alienated voices that exist beyond “civilised society”.

Sadly, the ideas which so obviously form the foundations of the film itself are never given enough room to breathe or time to develop. Too much of the story takes place outside of the setting which is most intriguing and offers the most narrative possibilities. Obviously the zombies’ journey from the outlands is important, but why wasn’t more focus placed on the internal struggles within the city, which would have made for a more intense experience, alike to that of Dawn of the Dead (albeit on a grander scale)? Ultimately, the film fails both to capture the imagination of the audience, and to strike fear or dread into the heart, two things that the previous films do so well. It’s a sad thing to have to say, but Land is the first sign of Romero putting his thematic ideas before his cinematic execution, a move which allows his later films to be overshadowed by their own metaphors.

FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ 1/2

Day of the Dead (1985)

Day of the Dead

Day of the Dead is the third film in George A. Romero’s series of zombie movies, and the least liked of the original trilogy. It’s often compared to Dawn, accused of suffering from little-to-no sense of humor and bad acting. And this is understandable. Gone is the flashy, vibrant aesthetic and wittily satirical tone of the second film, having been replaced with something far bleaker. The world as we know it has finally come to a brutal end, and some of the last surviving scientists and military personnel are driven into a claustrophobic underground shelter where they desperately strategise and conspire for survival. Humanity is doomed, but what is most interesting about this film is its declaration that the zombies are not the only ones destroying life.

If Dawn of the Dead slyly attacked society through satire, then Day distances itself from metaphor and attacks living, breathing humans outright. By showing certain characters to be truly corrupt and self-destructive, Romero explores human nature more ferociously than before, and this results in a plodding nihilism which some viewers find tiring. The main source of malevolence is Captain Steven Rhodes, played by Jospeh Pilato, who, along with his fellow soldiers, grows increasingly impatient at the scientists’ lack of progress in discovering any reason or cure for the outbreak. He is especially bitter towards Dr. Sarah Bowman (Lori Cardille) and his anger culminates in a violence and villainy that threatens the survival of everyone, including himself. The group splits down the middle, and selfish bickering is what ultimately hinders progression.

What saves the film from becoming too despondent is its treatment of Dr. “Frankenstein” Logan (Richard Liberty) and his test subject Bub. Logan is the head scientist at the base who spends most of his time locked away in his laboratory, hacking at zombie limbs and brains, trying to make sense of their insatiable desire to feed. One zombie in particular reacts positively to his harebrained tests and shows signs of human understanding, mimicking everyday activities such as shaving and reading. If the hoard of the living-dead gathering at the mall in Dawn was a vague suggestion that some part of human memory is retained within the zombie brain, then Bub is both a concentration and development of this idea, an idea which was to be evolved even further in Land of the Dead, and again in Survival. If the zombies can learn and adapt, then there is hope after all. It’s interesting to note that Romero’s original script for Day was much longer, and encompassed many of the ideas that were eventually realised in Land. The two films are very similar; both are set within territories cut off from the ‘outside’ by fences, both involve tyrants, and both have zombies displaying a peculiar level of intelligence. However, what sets Bub apart from the zombies in the later films is undoubtedly Sherman Howard’s brilliant performance, which somehow makes room for both empathy and horror. It’s exciting to watch Bub develop loyalty and compassion, whilst Tom Savini’s makeup keeps him looking decidedly icy.

Day of the Dead‘s scenes of zombie capture, imprisonment and torture are proof that it’s just as miserable to be a zombie in this world as it is to be a human. With each shriek and cry that suggests real torment and confusion, Romero lends his monsters a capacity for feeling, however juvenile, that removes them somewhat from the terrifying ghouls of Night of the Living Dead. The audience is left feeling cold as they realise that to live and progress means having to sometimes act immorally (this theme is most evident in Survival). And yet it is up to those with the strongest of moral consciences to stand against those who are foolish and selfish. Harry Cooper‘s character was a forewarning of the harmful effects of narrow-mindedness, and Rhodes is proof that such narrow-mindedness is here to stay. In the end, Day of the Dead leaves us with many ethical questions that are frustratingly unanswerable.

For a film that takes itself so seriously, there are still moments of light relief, provided mostly by helicopter pilots John (Joseph Pilato) and McDermott (Jarlath Conroy). The two help out when they can but mostly keep their distance from the drama, and John’s laid back attitude in particular nicely offsets Sarah’s headache-inducing severity. Camping away from the cramped conditions of the base, they are the antithesis to the doctors who insist on staying put in the name of progress. John, at one point, says to Sarah: “Let’s get in that old whirly-bird, find us an island some place, get juiced up and spend what time we got left soakin’ up some sunshine! How’s that?” His plan is to keep moving rather than to sit still. And in the end, the characters must move to keep alive, as all characters in Romero’s films must ultimately do, journeying off into the sunset in helicopters, armored vehicles or boats. For to sit still in this world of the dead, is to be dead.

FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★