Diary of the Dead Films
It still takes brains to appreciate George Romero's zombies.
By Steve Palopoli
It is impossible for the latest film in George Romero's 40-year-long zombie safari to avoid comparisons to Cloverfield, which is totally unfair to Diary of the Dead. I mean, not only is this undoubtedly the first time a giant-monster movie has been used as a yardstick to judge a movie about the living dead, but Romero's movie was in the can almost a year before Cloverfield. Yes, the similarities are there: the shaky-cam thing, the Blair Witch thing, the amateur-video-guy-recording-scary-stuff thing--oh wait, those are all the same thing! Guess they don't have a whole lot in common outside of the camcorder approach. Still, I did just admit it was impossible not to compare them, so let's get it out of the way. Cloverfield is pretty much an exercise in filmmaking style--perfectly constructed once the action starts, very realistic and purposefully lacking any depth or point whatsoever. Diary of the Dead starts slow, as a group of film students find themselves in the middle of a budding undead epidemic, and like Romero's original-gangster zombies, the movie meanders about whenever it feels like it. It does a poor job of justifying the stylistic concept--really, the woman who put together the students' documentary footage (and narrates) would edit in fake scares and spooky music? That's just wrong, and the attempt to explain it is even worse.
And yet, if you can let go of those annoying first few minutes, Diary of the Dead is ultimately the more satisfying film. It takes time to build and has trademark Romero quirks like silly moments that come out of nowhere, but as it unfolds it becomes more and more obvious that it's a brilliant addition to Romero's zombie mythos.
Romero is possibly his own biggest critic, so he'd be the first to admit that overall his films have been hit or miss. But there's something about his zombie films that make them iconic, almost beyond good or bad. There will be an endless debate, for instance, over the merits of Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead, but the debates themselves only elevate their cult-movie cred. The thing about all of the Dead films is that Romero managed to capture the zeitgeist of the time in which he made each one. Take a look (and heed spoiler warnings if you haven't seen them):
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968): Romero picked a time of racial turmoil to make a movie in which antagonism between a black character and a white character causes them to split up the house they've barricaded themselves in, rather than take on the outside threat as a united front. Later, of course, the black character, busting out of the front door in ecstatic disbelief that he has survived the night, is shot to death by whites who mistake him for a zombie. Or at least that's their story, right?
DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978): Romero's most famous social satire--zombies flood the shopping mall--came as the '60s were being declared officially dead and the '70s were blossoming into a new age of obsessive consumerism that would peak around the same time as John Hughes. Like its era, this sequel was slicker, more complex and bleaker than what had come before.
DAY OF THE DEAD (1985): The Cold War. The widespread fear of nuclear Armaggedon. A movie about underground zombies under the control of the military. Might be a connection.
LAND OF THE DEAD (2005): Only the era of the housing bubble could have produced a zombie movie about the living using a gated community to keep out the dead.
DIARY OF THE DEAD (2008): A zombie film for the YouTube generation. The points it makes about our 24/7 voyeur culture--both positive and negative--are the most salient of any film in the saga. This is the first Romero film ever--and possibly the first film in the entire zombie genre--to feature a completely safe place to hide that the characters actually stay in. Does Romero think maybe we're getting smarter?
CULT LEADER is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.