Tuesday, October 2, 2007


If there was one film I was most looking forward to seeing at Fantastic Fest, there was no question it was going to be George A. Romero’s DIARY OF THE DEAD. I can’t begin to describe how much Romero’s work means to me, and DAWN OF THE DEAD is the gold standard to which I hold all other horror films up to. It was the first genre film I ever saw that I felt was set in the real world, one whose characters and actions I could completely relate to because they came from the same working middle class world I did. A recent theatrical screening of DAWN (my first) showed that despite some of the film’s numerous technical flaws (a number of out of focus shots and most of the zombie makeups) it still held up as a genuine American classic, a rare horror film with scope, imagination and ingenuity that is still remarkably potent today. The subsequent follow-ups (1985’s DAY OF THE DEAD and 2005’s LAND OF THE DEAD) are both fine films (DAY gets even better with age) but not quite the masterworks of DAWN and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. So like many, when it was announced that Romero was going back to the well with the quasi-BLAIR WITCH approach on DIARY OF THE DEAD, I was somewhat apprehensive about it. Could Romero really do it again? Did he actually have more to say or was this a quick cash-in? And hasn’t the overload of zombie films lately taken away whatever power they all once had? Valid questions all, but once the Fantastic Fest opening night screening finish I knew it was silly to have worried at all, as DIARY OF THE DEAD is an absolute triumph. Romero has not only reinvented his zombie series, he’s also reinvented himself and has made his finest film since MONKEY SHINES and his best zombie film since DAWN OF THE DEAD. I fucking loved it.

The first thing that threw me off about DIARY OF THE DEAD was the narration. The film is presented as a documentary about the beginning of the zombie plague called THE DEATH OF DEATH; a group of student filmmakers are shooting a horror film in the woods of Pennsylvania when the outbreak occurs and the footage we see (all of it firsthand POV) becomes part of the doco, so when the narration hits, it’s important to remember the “student film” context Romero is putting his film in. Because of this, certain parts of it comes across as a bit pretentious, but the film also knows this and is partially having a wink with it all, too, letting the characters speak for him and by film’s end it completely works. What proves to be a bit more difficult is in establishing his characters like he’s done in previous films, since he’s presenting it all in more-or-less “real time” it isn’t easy to make all of his characters to be 100% believable, so some of them feel a bit more like caricatures and it’s a considerable speedbump. But once the shit hits the fan it all gets moving very quickly and by the halfway it’s almost all forgotten, thank god.

So by this point I’m pretty much going to forgo discussing the rest of the plot, not just because I don’t want to give away anything but because it isn’t exactly necessary for me to do so. But I will say that once the film is on the road, Romero begins to take the film in directions that I was not expecting, and with that you see that he’s also venturing out into a lot of new territory for himself. Extended single takes, matter-of-fact (but still juicy) deaths that will probably give him some MPAA problems (hooray!), use of real world anarchy footage (Hurricane Katrina, the L.A. riots, anti-war protest, Iraq) show him to be a revitalized filmmaker completely back in touch with his independent roots and love of filmmaking. The result, for me, is absolutely euphoric because here is one of my idols getting back to where he once belonged (hey, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best) and knocking it out of the fucking park. Romero hasn’t shown this much vitality in years, almost decades, and I was so happy seeing him happy again that DIARY OF THE DEAD became an unusually uplifting experience, proof (to me), that at no matter what age an artist can reinvent themselves with such abandon that they can cause joy in their audience. It is more than likely that most of you won’t feel the same way about DIARY as I do because you’re not Romero worshipers like I am, and that’s perfectly fine. But at the very least, try to keep all I said in mind when you eventually see the film (and I don’t think there’s any question that you should) and see it for yourself. Understand that much of what makes DIARY OF THE DEAD so great isn’t that it’s got zombies and lots of killing, or its wit, fine acting (especially from lead Michelle Morgan) and social commentary, but because an important American filmmaker has found his voice again. Because of his independence and genre roots, Romero has never been lumped in with the film school generation of Scorsese and Coppola, even though he’s totally an equal to them as both an artist and a statesman. But with DIARY, he proves himself to be the Charley Varick of movie directors, the last of the true independents, and it’s a pure joy to watch him work. George A. Romero is perhaps the most underrated American filmmaker of all time and DIARY OF THE DEAD proves why he’s also one of the very best. Welcome back, George.

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