One of the great injustices in modern cinema is that visionary filmmaker George A. Romero lacks a larger forum from which to deliver his vital movies. Of course, the fact that he uses flesh-eating zombies as his messengers makes his work a hard sell to mainstream audiences. Granted, Romero has always been a cult director, having changed the face of the horror film with his 1968 masterpiece Night of the Living Dead, an allegory of the social unrest that was raging across the country at the time. The movie’s message isn’t what initially caused viewers to flock to it, rather it’s ground-breaking, in-your-face violence that put butts in seats and the gore that marked a radical change in the way horror would be presented from there on out.
Recognized by critics as an innovator but never embraced by the mainstream, Romero has continued to work on the fringe, making films his way and giving voice to his own social concerns through them. The subtext running through his films have ranged from racial unrest and the true impact of violence (Night),to rampant consumerism (Dawn of the Dead), the danger of the military run amok (Day of the Dead) and the ever-widening gap between the haves and the have-nots (Land of the Dead). With his latest, Diary of the Dead, Romero takes aim at the media and in the process, reboots the zombie genre by taking it back to its roots.
As with all of the previous entries in the Dead cycle, the explanation for why the recently deceased come back to life to eat human flesh is vague at best. A group of young college filmmakers discover first hand that they’re potentially the special of the day when they’re attacked while making their own horror flick. Relying on the media to provide them with information about what they quickly perceive is a national crisis, the students quickly realize that the news they’re seeing via the internet is being skewed, spun and changed by the hour. Jason (Joshua Close) decides to document what is going on via his digital camera and download his epic, The Death of Death, on YouTube for all to see. He plans on recording the zombies that are wreaking havoc in the streets as he and his friends travel across Pennsylvania, each of them returning to their homes in the hopes of finding their families still alive.
Their numbers steadily dwindle as they have numerous run-ins with the dead on their cross-country odyssey. While the sell-by date where shock value is concerned has long since passed as far as the zombies are concerned, Romero is not beyond having fun with them. Whereas a simple gunshot to the head is the preferred way of dispensing with the undead, here our intrepid heroes use modern means such as defibrillator paddles to fry their brains or an old-fashioned scythe for a quick lobotomy. Obviously, these sorts of gory thrills are part and parcel of the genre and while these moments were played for shock value in the initial entries, here there’s a post-modern irony at work as Romero knows that there’s little he can show us that will shock us, so their demise is done in a throw-away manner that speaks of our society’s callousness towards death. Then again, the director has always used the undead metaphorically and here they represent the ever-growing segment of our populace that’s weary of being manipulated by the media and craves the truth. Their resurrection is an uprising against the misdirection perpetrated by the current political administration and the media conglomerates that are complicit in turning us into mindless drones.
If Romero is known for anything, it’s his take-no-prisoners approach and we’re put under the microscope in this installment as well. Not only are we called on the carpet for not questioning the electronic tripe that’s presented to us, but evidently, we are contributing to the confusion as well. The film points out that there are approximately 200,000,000 video cameras in use around the world. Ironically, instead of providing more opportunities for the truth to be spread, the result has been nothing but confusion. Digital manipulation is the order of the day, the truth be damned.
The consumption of the aspiring filmmakers by the zombies signals their assimilation into the status quo. Their voices are gone, their independence wiped out, and their desire to fight for the truth has been obliterated. More importantly, many of their deaths point to their willingness to become absorbed into the mindless masses who willingly accept what they are told. This proves to be Romero’s most frightening point because it is oh so accurate.
Diary of the Dead starts Friday, March 21 at the Savoy 16.