Forget Cloverfield — I’m giving top props to George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead for using a handheld digital camera to swat at the YouTube-ification of America. While Cloverfield wielded the woozy camera as a gimmick, Diary of the Dead gives it the center ring to ask a provocative question about the circus we call pop culture: What the hell out there is turning us into a nation of zombiefied peepers?>But first, for the uninitiated, a little Romero history. You don’t need to study the Romero zombie canon to enjoy the fifth and latest in his series. But you could do worse. Romero’s 1968 debut with the breakout zombie classic Night of the Living Dead was a gritty, low-tech wonder. Shot in unglam Pittsburgh — Romero is to that city what John Waters is to Baltimore — in black-and-white and with actors you’ve never heard of, this cult phenom (made for a piddling $114,000) still looks grungy-great. And something more: Smack in the middle of the civil rights era, Romero used a black actor (Duane Jones) as the hero and picked up props for being relevant. He hasn’t lost his touch.
Social satire continues to figure in Romero’s films with no sacrifice in blood-curdling scares. American consumerism took a hit as zombies roamed a shopping mall in 1978’s Dawn of the Dead. Sexism went on the zombie fire in 1985’s Day of the Dead. In 2005’s Land of the Dead, zombies stood in for persons of interest in the post-9/11 zeitgeist. Romero told me recently, “I see something shitty happening in the world, and I slap some zombies on it.” Good line, but Romero is shortchanging his talent. Even in his non-Dead films — catch 1988’s Monkeyshines and 1993’s The Dark Half — Romero creates muckraking mischief. And he’s in rare form in Diary of the Dead, a stripped-down zombie epic in which he uses Toronto to stand in for Pittsburgh to save a few bucks. At sixty-eight, Romero is still a rampaging maverick.
The something shitty this time is our tendency to stick a camera in front of everyone and everything. As Debra (Michelle Morgan) tells Jason Creed (Joshua Close), her film-student boyfriend, “For you, if it’s not on film it never happened.” Romero’s characters, in the process of making an amateur mummy movie outside Pittsburgh, find terror for real: The dead are rising upnd looking to chow down on new victims. Rich-kid Ridley (Philip Riccio), who stars in the mummy rip-off, bolts for the family mansion. That leaves Jason and Debra to fend for themselves, along with a crew made up of film-freak Tony (Shawn Roberts), tech-head Eliot (Joe Dinicol), booze-hound Brit teacher Maxwell (Scott Wentworth) and Texas babe Tracy (Amy Lalonde),nown for her ability to scream and jiggle on cue. As in most Romero movies, the actors are not likely Oscar candidates. But the rawness gives the movie just the right MySpace vibe, as does the documentary the crew makes, aptly titled The Death of Death.
The students try to make their getaway in a Winnebago, but zombies are persistent. Sequences abound in which laughs freeze the blood. Look out for the deaf, bomb-throwing Amish farmer, the overzealous National Guardsmen and the visit to Debra’s home in Scranton, where family values include cannibalism. But the real mindblower goes down in a hospital, as Romero turns a place of safety and healing into a breeding ground for ravenous, drooling creatures who can be stopped only by blowing off their effing heads. (When I mentioned to Romero that universal cremation could put him out of the zombie business, he laughed like hell.)>Through it all, Jason keeps his camera rolling, showing the worst of us, such as two good ol’ boys using zombies for target practice, an image that evokes Abu Ghraib in its intensity. Romero is asking us: Do we stop at the scene of an accident to help or to look? The best scary movies show the monster invading us from the inside. This one belongs with the leaders ofhe scare pack. Isn’t it time that we give Romero his due? It’s hardly an accident that Stephen King, Quentin Tarantino, Guillermo del Toro, Simon Pegg and Wes Craven recognize Romero as a master. He is.