Friday, April 04, 2008

Diary of the Dead

As ‘Casino Royale’ proved, a simple and effective way to re-invent a franchise is to clear the decks of the earlier episodes and present the latest film as, essentially, the first. So it is that ‘Diary of the Dead’ comes across as ‘Night of the Living Dead’ for the YouTube generation.

‘Night’ has a cross-section of late sixties society trapped in a farmhouse, beset by internal tensions as well as the external threat (characters in the subsequent films have a context, an understanding of what the zombies are and how to combat them, that those in the original don’t).

‘Diary’ has the zombie outbreak witnessed, fled from and - most crucially - documented by film students and bloggers. This new generation, while they quickly demonstrate themselves just as ill-equipped to deal with the threat (perhaps less so, certainly compared to the pro-active protagonists of ‘Dawn of the Dead’), are nonetheless self-important enough to make themselves the heroes of their own movie. Quite literally. ‘Diary of the Dead’ starts with budding director Jason (Joshua Close) calling the shots on a student film, a piss-awful mummy movie, only to bicker with his actors because the whole thing looks laughable when it should be scary.

Moments later they're in a scary movie, like it or not.

It’s fitting that ‘Diary of the Dead’ was released so soon after ‘Cloverfield’, not least for the pleasure of forty-something J.J. Abrams and his cast of twenty-something trendies being shown up by sixty-seven year old Romero, with an even younger cast and just a fraction of the budget.

That ‘Diary of the Dead’ more or less succeeds where ‘Cloverfield’ fails - I say “more or less”, because ‘Diary’ still has flaws - is because it neatly avoids the problem that ‘Cloverfield’ was never going to get away from.

‘Cloverfield’ sets itself up as found footage from a camcorder wielded by some guy’s best mate who determinedly keeps hold of it - and keeps filming with it - even when his life’s in danger, his friends’ lives are in danger, the life of the girl he’s carrying a torch for is in danger and he could so be in with a chance just by junking the camera and putting his arm around her. Bridges collapse, suspension cables whipping lethally through the air ... military patrols come thundering through city streets, tooled up and trigger happy ... creepy, slimy, fast-moving creatures swarm above him in a dank tunnel ... and this guy, this guy who breezily announces a few minutes into the film that he's never used a camcorder before, keeps on filming like he’s Werner Herzog deep in the jungle and the monster’s Klaus Kinski.

Which is to say, the film wants to be realistic but calls for suspension of disbelief in virtually every scene. Come on, when the fucking monster requires a lesser suspension of disbelief, surely that tells you something!

‘Diary’ gets away with it because:

a) They’re film students. It’s egos-a-go-go. They’re convinced they’re going to be the next big thing. Of course they’ll keep on filming whatever the odds.

b) They have two cameras. Whomever is lensing at any one time captures the other. And vice versa. So the cameraman (or woman) remains a character, never just an eyepiece for the benefit of the audience.

c) ‘Diary’ doesn't pretend to be found footage, instead taking the form of a completed, edited and scored film (‘The Death of Death’). A terrific scene has the film-makers editing footage on the hoof, eagerly uploading it to the net (and why not – they’re getting a shitload of hits!).

There are a number of darkly funny moments, particularly a scene involving a mute Amish farmer who arms himself with dynamite and gives the zombies hell. And herein lies the problem. The material works best as jet-black satire. So when Romero tries to impose a sympathy-for-the-zombie moral at the end - or comment on the verisimilitude of image by clumsily restaging the mummy movie footage as an actual zombie attack – ‘Diary of the Dead’ becomes too evidently the work of its writer/director and not the student film of its characters.

Or, to put it meta-textually, it shocks you out of ‘The Death of Death’ and reminds you that you're actually watching ‘Diary of the Dead’, which reminds you in turn that both of them are just movies.

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