Monday, March 24, 2008

Not Funny Enough, Zombie Man

With his most recent zombie flick installment, Diary of the Dead, George A. Romero has come incredibly close to diving headfirst into straight-up comedy. Sadly, he didn’t quite get to the bottom of the sea of hilarity. Although Diary features ample self-reflexive parody and general genre spoofing, as well as a crazy badass deaf Amish guy whose role in the film I will save for the reader to discover, the film is hampered by its momentary lapses into nearly unendurable pretension and ill-conceived social commentary, which is quite unusual for the typically sharp Romero.

Diary’s set-up echoes that of this year’s Cloverfield: a group of twentysomethings (this time film students initially making a student film) become hounded by an individual amongst them, Jason (Joshua Close) who is hell-bent on recording the end of the world as it happens. As revealed in the film’s introductory voice-over, Jason has died and his surviving girlfriend, Debra (Michelle Morgan), has finished his documentary of the earth’s zombiefication, entitled The Death of Death, which she then plays for the audience, making super-serious pseudo-philosophical commentary throughout the film, clashing with the film’s generally consistent parodic sensibility.

During Romero’s introduction to Diary of the Dead before a special midnight screening at Nashville’s treasured Belcourt Theatre, which I attended gleefully, Romero maintained the comic tone that dominates much of the film amidst his humble sincerity. Romero noted that, contrary to Land of the Dead (2005), Diary is “a film from the heart” in which he tried to discover whether or not he had the “chops and stamina to do a little film again” and the legendary writer-director repeatedly expressed his gratitude for the enthusiasm Diary has been received with, noting that he would have made the film “even if it went straight to DVD.” When Romero began fielding questions from the audience, shit got hysterical.

One audience member stood up, gesturing toward his amputated arm and asked if he could be an extra in Romero’s next film since it would be easy to special effect an arm-ripping scene with him. Everyone got a good chuckle out of the unexpected humor proposed by the man, who laughed quite a bit himself, particularly when Romero retorted “I’ve shot my last few films in Canada and zombies in Canada are unionized,” referring to the regulations on extras, and expressing regret that the “$1 and a cheeseburger” policy of paying extras isn’t practical any longer.

The conversation then shifted to talk of Romero’s childhood fears, leading him to comment, “I was frightened that when I died, Jesus was going to kick my ass,” adding, “He was the first zombie, actually,” prompting a roar of laughter from the crowd. The raucous humor was further enlivened when a few audience members shouted, “Then, why do we eat his flesh?” and “Why do we drink his blood?” Romero, smiling from ear to ear, then declared, “This guy’s spun this thing right on its head!”

Following Romero’s standing ovation as he left the stage, the film began – starting its oft-hilarious journey toward the demystification of the media and of cinema, via a zombie apocalypse. Diary employs many of the well-worn tactics of cinematic derangment, a la Jean-Luc Godard and Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (1929). The film’s opening shot begins with a new cameraman onto his camera – from the camera’s perspective – immediately forcing the audience to realize that it is watching through the first-person eye of a camera, which it will throughout the film. In addition to its constant references to the presence of the camera, including a detailed description of the camera used to shoot the film-within-a-film, The Death of Death (and presumably the actual film), much like the description read aloud during the credits of Godard’s Contempt (1963). The film’s use of absurdly bombastic and stereotypical music also echoes Contempt’s melodramatic and overly-sensuous score and is well-manipulated by Romero. Another tool of inciting awareness of the film’s fictionality in the audience borrowed from Godard, is the jump-cut, which in Diary has become what may be called the “glitch-cut,” in which the first person camera gets scrambled, thrown, or turned off, for dramatic or comedic effect.

Romero’s most audacious move is his revelation of the film’s editing process, as is masterfully depicted in Vertov’s aforementioned silent masterpiece. In one scene during which the group has a chance to rest at the compound of an African-American militarist group, Jason basically sprints to a computer in order to edit and upload some of the footage he has shot to Youtube. He is shown picking his shots and dropping them in their slots, basically creating the film the audience has been watching. Exciting because of its deconstruction of the cinematic product, the scene epitomizes Romero’s goal of attacking the media and stripping it of its power. But is it really necessary in the Youtube age? Romero seems to think so, and he iterates this with obnoxious emphasis.

Before attacking Diary’s irritating moments of seriousness, due must be given to its lightness. When the audience first meets the film’s group of protagonists, they are filming a low-budget horror film about a mummy. Referencing and mocking Romero’s penchant for social commentary, as is displayed in his milestones Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978), one of the students sardonically comments that the The Death of Death should have “an underlying thread of social satire.” Additionally, Romero inserts humorous statements on zombie movement, as one of the characters comments to the actor playing the mummy that he can’t run after the girl, claiming, “You’re a corpse; if you run fast, your ankles will snap off.” The parallel scene near the film’s finale of the first filming scene is exceedingly
comical (but shan’t be detailed for the sake of preserving the plot!) and the sequence featuring the deaf Amish guy is one of the most knee-slap-inducing bits of cinema I’ve seen in a long time. Watching Diary of the Dead, I kept wishing that Romero would just make a straight-up comedy. I have a feeling it would be marvelous.

When Romero did stray from his comic tone, eyes rolled all over the theatre. Although Diary does maneuver through some racial and gender commentary during the scenes involving the militarist group, as well as tackling the downside of isolation during the film’s finale, when dealing with the role of the camera in society, the film becomes quite hamfisted. Repeatedly, like an ideological bludgeon, the concept of the camera as a weapon (zing!) is bashed into the head of the viewer, such as when a frustrated Debra turns the camera on Jason and asks, “You see how it feels?” The exploitative possibilities of the camera are underlined fifteen times by Romero, particularly during a scene where the group must battle zombies in a hospital and Jason is told, “Don’t try to speak, just shoot,” leading him to point his camera with precision, rather than use the gun that is the intended object of the command. After the students’ cynical professor, Andrew Maxwell (Scott Wentworth) blows some zombies away, he gives the gun to someone else, explaining, “It’s too easy to use.” Almost immediately afterward, Debra hands the camera back to Jason, also explaining, “It’s too easy to use.”

This is how I imagine the thought process behind the scene: “Get it? It’s like a metaphor and shit. ‘Shoot,’ do you get it? Lemme make sure you get it. Hmmm. I’ll just use the same damned metaphor over and over and milk it to the point that you want to vomit. Then you’ll definitely get it, and you’ll think I’m edgy and clever. Fuck subtlety. I’ll just punch you in the stomach. You’ll be amazed!” Sadly, Romero does just that, harping on the violence-of-the-camera issue with the tact of a 13-year-old. It’s a tragic day when I have to call George A. Romero “didactic,” but he is that, if nothing else, during the disgustingly clunky portions of Diary.

On the whole, Diary is watchable, but definitely not as rewatchable as Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead. It seems Romero might still be getting his groove back after returning to the zombie genre, but hopefully he will be able to attain the perfection of Dawn once more, striking a balance between horror, comedy, and social satire. Maybe he’ll tie his heavy hands a little better next time.

by Brandon Colvin

***Photos of George Romero were taken by Jackie Clarkson***


Anonymous said...

While I agree with your criticism almost whole-heartedly, I feel the movie is worse than you have graded for it.

The gags you mention are the only ones that are even worth mentioning in the film. As these "moments of lightness" serve as the endurable counterpart to the unendurable heavy handed portions of the film, I feel they should have been more consistent and frankly, funnier.

Deaf Amish guy sequence aside, I don't even feel this movie succeeds as a comedy.

But as the film proves, a deaf Amish guy can take you a long way.

Brandon Colvin said...


This isn't quite the whole review. I think there's a technical problem floating around here.

Nostalgia Kinky said...

I think we are coming to the film at a different angle. To me, Romero's films need to work first and foremost as a horror film (which I think this one does very well).
While several of his films contain strong comedic elements, they are always secondary in my eyes to the more horrific and serious aspects he was going for.
I felt the handful of 'gags' worked okay here but what really got me about the film was the way it worked as a work of intense and visceral horror. In that way it is his best film since DAY OF THE DEAD and possibly DAWN.
As far as the commentary on our current 'information' age. I guess I didn't mind being hit over the head with the message since I mostly agree with his thoughts on the matter. One of the key questions that the film raises is does he really 'need' to keep filming when nearly everyone all over the world is doing the same thing. I think Romero makes a great point about how even filmed footage will have a personal slant to it...the revolution will be televised but you necessarily believe what you are seeing...
I feel like Romero has always been pretty up front with his agendas (whether it be satirizing commercialism in DAWN to the obvious anti-Bush feeling LAND had) and here again he is directly and forcefully pointing out aspects of our current society he finds really distasteful.

I don't think the film is perfect...some of the narration is unneccessary and irritating and some of the acting suffers from some of the same over-the-top issues that plagued DAY OF THE DEAD but overall I really loved the film...with the final image alone being among my favorites of the decade.

So, we disagree some but your B rating says that you enjoyed the film as well...and as always your writing is great and was a pleasure to read...

James Hansen said...

I have to say that I enjoyed this film quite a bit as well, Jeremy. I'm one of the few people who liked "Land of the Dead" it seems and thought this was on par, if not somewhat better. Despite all the gags, I thought the film really pushed into an interesting realm. I started writing a review for this after I saw it and went onto a theoretical diatribe which is basically this...

I think what has to be remembered is that the entire film is the student film. I don't say this to excuse some of the forcefully over the top dialogue, but I really think within the student film space that Romero created, it really feels pretty accurate. I've had enough conversations with would be film students and heard enough things similar to what I heard that the comments rung true with me quite a lot.

Where then does Romero come in? The film is shot, edited, and narrated by the students. Romero is the one who is broadcasting the film in theaters maybe, but the YouTube/film student qualities brought in "The Death of Death" (a horribly overt title) are what give the film its over-the-topness that leads to the film's horror and comedy. It's important to remember where the film is coming from, and within it is being made not to come from Romero but from film students, and within that ideology I think the film really works.

This is a nice piece with valid criticism, but I just think that since it is supposed to be coming from a different filmic space/mind other than Romero, it makes the hamfisted-ness another gag that needs to be recognized and reallly becomes spot on. It may be as simple as Hoberman's assertion that this is merely like "watching the end of the world on YouTube" but how Romero changes his style to make it like that YouTube/student style shouldn't be overlooked.

Anonymous said...

I definitely thinks that is a valid point and one I did not consider. I guess I can never know how much of this unpolished narrative is as a result of coming to the story from the perspective of an amateur. It's interesting to think that the film was supposedly made by a character with a hollow, idealistic agenda. As such, how could the film possibly overcome such a handicap. In that it doesn't, is that what makes it succeed?


Is it a good movie because it's a bad movie?

Anonymous said...

Yeah, that's right.

I thinks.

Brandon Colvin said...

See, I thought the SAME exact thing that you are mentioning, James. However, I just wasn't sure. It wasn't the voice over, etc. that bothered me, it was what the characters did, which, in the realm of the student film, wouldn't have been scripted. Know what I mean?

Like, when they have the nifty gun-camera associational dialogue, there is no script. In the realm of the student film, this is just said by the characters. But in the realm of Romero, it is written, since he wrote it. So I don't really see how the student film aspect of it can account for that. I get how it works for the voice over, etc. and Jason's overheard comments, but when the other characters say things, it's not like Jason planned it.

Do you get what I'm saying?

James Hansen said...

I def. get what you're saying and have had the same battle over what I really think about it. I eventually thought, though, that so much of the film is how students are reacting to being in front of the camera all the time and in the media age where cameras are everywhere that always being ready for a performance is part of it as well.

And maybe some of the comments are a little too clever and wouldn't have been said at that spur of the moment like in the film, but most of that continued to lend itself to the more subtle comedic effect of constantly being ready for performance. I'd be interested to hear some of the feminist critics on the performance aspects the film ponders as the Big Other becomes bigger and bigger.

Anyways, I totally get you and have had the same battle with it, but I think it all added up to a more successful effect more me personally.