Finally getting a chance to watch Romero's restart, I was struck by how personal of a movie it was. Ultimately. Zombie movies by and large have taken on a sense of tactics as of late, a sense of strategy-in-motion. Characters have been effective, but somehow it has felt more about the act of survival than the characters who survive. The two most personal entries in the sub-genre have both been British, and neither have been precisely in-canon: 28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead. With them, as with Diary (as with Romero's earlier trilogy), the act of surviving is something that characters do, as opposed to be characters are those who survive.
I could not even place exactly where the personal element comes from. The acting isn't quite right in this movie, and the characters are too stereotypical. With the exception of the the black militia (especially it's leader), none of them quite feel like people in an honest world-changing event. They have many shades of upset, many shades of bother, but somehow it is a generalized sense of bother. The actors seem to be reacting to concept rather than to something that is in their face. Still, when it was over, I realized that I had come to take them as people. That upclose brutal camera that shows off their lacks also helps to actualize them. And if their overall reaction to a world that will never be the same feels a tad stilted, a bit intellectual, then it somehow works because that seems to be the theme. We don't experience any more, we read about. We watch. We discuss. It's real because it can be captured on film and talked about.
The story is kind of a simple one. A group of college film students are in the middle of making a movie when the zombie outbreak occurs. This is the early, slow stages and so panic is fast to set in but no one really knows what is going down. Faced with a wide open set of options, and not even knowing if the stories are a hoax or a misunderstanding, they set off for home, or some reasonable semblance thereof. The central character, Jason, was in the middle of making a college project horror movie but really wants to be a documentary maker. So he treats this like a movie. In his "confessional", he actually talks about being glad for the chance at this.
In style, it is quite close to Night, mid to close shots with landscapes in motion or dotted with the undead. Gore is minimal, especially compared to the last couple of outings, but there are few bloody scenes. It uses shaky cam quite well, better than several other movies that have tried the technique. It feels more natural here, especially in the context of it being knowingly edited. The overall rhythm follows Romero's previous movies. Moments of safety followed by moments of danger back and forth. Interestingly, they highlight a truth not seen since Night (though other zom-movies like Fido have brought it up): anyone who dies comes back to life, bites just kill you quicker.
The movie intersects the two themes. College kids, somewhat entitled and somewhat removed from the world-at-large, have to come to grips with the changes, or fail to do so. While going through this struggle, they also engage in the questions of capturing the events on tape, the way we look at blogs and the questions about veracity and meaning in the overwhelming stream of data. The world is panicking, everyone is unsure of what will happen next. Not suprisingly, people are turning to online resources to get information. Pages of video feeds and eye witness accounts are sorted through and digested in a way that the news casters would have been in Dawn of the Dead. What newscasters are used, tend to be mixed in with the background noise, a steady of stream of questionable information. If we see that an individual can lie to control others, or to get ratings, then why not a collection of individuals. Who do you trust, the British newcaster or the Bible thumping pastor or the Conversative pundit? When hundreds more are talking at the same time, do you stop and listen or do you move on?
Romero's zombie movies are often about the irony of things you can't leave behind, even when you should because they have no meaning. Maybe we cling to them because they will never return. Maybe we cling to them because they have some heightened sense of value, making the world seem normal again. It can range from racism, to social classes, to commericalism, to military power. We look at the zombies in their old uniforms and bathing suits and we chuckle because they ape the living. We look at them flocking to shopping malls and to weird parodies of everyday activities, and we nod sagely. But, strangely, we forget to note that the living also flocked to the shopping mall. They somehow considered it safe, despite its many exits and its obvious lure for looters and thieves. They were unable to let go of the symbol. In Diary, Jason is a zombie himself, unable to not record the footage he so desparately wants. Endangering others. Justifying it like a drug addict would. In a week, there won't be any websites for people to even browse, but he wants to get his video out.
Much like Cloverfield, though, Romero's Diary makes a fairly basic mistake. YouTubers are not documentary makers who film others while hiding behind a character (as both Hud and Jason do), showing up only as a disembodied voice. YouTubers are people who are putting themselves out there. They film themselves, and people around them. They make personal films. Diary is about filmmakers, so their technique would be somewhat ingrained, but so much of the message of the film centers around the online video phenomenon. Much is about a different sort of obsession than the one shown. The ultimate message of the movie, the moral, seems to have more to do with war-time photographers than YouTubers. It makes sense. This is a movie by a long time director who is seeing this new trend, a trend that is only a couple of years in the making. Not only has it not had the chance to stew and grow, yet, but it thinks and breathes different than the old school ways of holding a camera. In some ways, traditional filmmakers will always be a disjunct with the amateurs who score millions of views by singing songs funny. Old filmmakers speak volumes by their choice of cuts. YouTubers don't have cuts, they just say what they mean while the camera rolls.
I think I can say, though, that this is a film worthy of respect despite its flaws. It has a message, and questions to ask. This could turn out to be Romero's last zombie film, and if so then I am glad it turned out the way it did. It is a man asking a new generation of filmmakers "What mark will you make?", "What stories will you tell?". It shows how they can fight a system that tries to distort truth, even though they are part of a system that overwhelms it. There are a lot of things at stake here, and it's true Romero form that plays through.
This is a Good movie, but definitely not a great one. It is more than worth watching, and stands to bring in a few people who are not zombie-lovers into the fold.
Written by W Doug Bolden
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