Four months since the West Coast premiere of DIARY OF THE DEAD at Screamfest, I took advantage of the opportunity to see it again at the American Cinematheque’s preview on Wednesday night, in the Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Blvd. This is the theatre where I saw ALIEN during its initial run, so the venerable venue has many pleasant monster movie memories for me. As if that were not reason enough to see the film two days before it officially opens, there was an additional inducement: George A. Romero would be in attendance to discuss the film. Of course, I had just had a one-on-on interview with him the day before, but I wasn’t able to squeeze every question in during the limited time, so why not check out what he had to say the fans at the Egyptian?
I’ve heard some complaints about the film, allegations that it hits its political points too squarely on the nose; the acting is overdone; the dialogue is bad. Concerned that I had overlooked some flaws during the initial excitement of seeing a brand new DEAD movie from Romero, I was eager for a second viewing, and I have to say that I still do not see most of what people are complaining about. The dialogue and performances are strong if not always outstanding. There are some moments that hit false notes, when an actor overdoes a bit or plays a scene without the polish one would expect from a seasoned professional, but overall these elements work together in the context of the film that is supposed to have an almost hand-made feel.
I do think there are a few minor problems with the pacing. Romero does have some points he wants to make, and they are stated fairly overtly rather than always being dramatized so that the audience can figure them out. I did find myself sometimes losing patience with the voice-over narration continually interpreting the events for me, but I can forgive the device to a certain extent, because what we are seeing in DIARY OF THE DEAD – unlike the superficially similar BLAIR WITCH and CLOVERFIELD – is not supposed to be raw “found” footage. DIARY OF THE DEAD is presented as if it were a finished “film within a film” (titled THE DEATH OF DEATH), which has been shot and edited by young film students desperate to make some kind of sense out of the worldwide disaster that has engulfed them. So it is completely understandable that Debra (Michelle Morgan) would be adding her voice to her boyfriend’s film. That doesn’t mean the device works perfectly, but it does make sense in context.
Other minor problems occur when Romero’s sense of humor pokes through what is otherwise a serious film. One can forgive the perhaps too pat contrivance of having the action at the beginning and at the end perfectly mirror each other: THE DEATH OF DEATH begins production as a student-made horror film about a mummy. At the end, the character in the mummy costume really becomes one of the living dead and recreates – to far better effect – the action he was performing so badly before, right down to ripping the leading lady’s top off on cue. What is a little hard to forgive is that when the beautiful blonde from Texas abandons her friends (rather like the beautiful blonde who abandoned her comrades in FEAST), Romero cannot resist putting a funny “Texas” music cue on the soundtrack.
On the plus side, the film is filled with interesting ideas about the media and voyeurism. The overall tone is serious and convincing. For all the thematic rumblings, Romero does not skimp on the graphic mayhem, which is achieved with a combination of prosthetics and computer-generated imagery. His film captures a real sense of not just visceral horror but tragedy, both personal and global; there is an almost depressing sense of dread at the onset of the apocalypse, the fear that everything the characters are doing may be useless because this could quite literally be the end of everything.
After the film, fellow director John Landis sat down with Romero for a brief interview. Landis began with a not too well-informed question, asking whether DIARY OF THE DEAD was Romero’s first experience with CGI (which was used quite extensively on Romero’s previous film LAND OF THE DEAD.
Romero explained that this was not the first time and said, “Some of these effects are fantastic. Actors don’t let you melt their heads, so some of those things were predictably CG.” He added that CGI had the benefit of speeding up the production because there was less time spent on set-up and clean-up: “We shot this film – the principal framework of it – in twenty days; then we did three days extra. The whole idea is to get off the set, so it’s a lot easier to have somebody hold up a gun and a zombie falls. Then you paint in the flash and paint in the splatter.” Here, Romero gave a shout out to Greg Nicotero, who has supplied splatter effects for several Romero films, including LAND OF THE DEAD and DIARY OF THE DEAD.
Landis next asked about when Romero had first conceived the script. “When we were shooting LAND OF THE DEAD, I already had a rough draft of the script,” Romero explained. “I wanted to do something about this emerging media, this octopus that has us all captive, but then the deal for LAND OF THE DEAD happened and I put it in the drawer. I have to say Universal really let me make that movie; they were not all over my ass and really let me make the movie I wanted to make, but it was grueling, man. Also, I suddenly looked at it and it seemed so big. Where do we go from here? What do you do – BEYOND PLANET OF THE APES?”
Riffing of the PLANET OF THE APES reference, Landis joked, “Tim Burton’s going to remake LAND OF THE DEAD!” “Well, there’re remaking this,” Romero replied, pointing to screen to indicate DIARY OF THE DEAD. You can appreciate Romero’s sarcasm when you realize that NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, DAWN OF THE DEAD, and DAY OF THE DEAD have all been the subjects of remakes in the last few years.
Landis went on to address the subject of voyeurism in the film, which reminded him of the German film MAN BITES DOG and of the excellent English horror film PEEPING TOM (which was directed by Michael Powell, one of Romero’s major influences). This led to a question about Romero’s views on emerging new media like the Internet and its relationship to traditional media like television.
“The mainstream disappears within thirty-six hours [in the film], and the Internet takes over,” said Romero. “It strikes me as a bit dangerous. Two things: People are captivated by ‘everybody has a camera; everybody’s a reporter.’ Right in the middle of Super Tuesday, it’s ‘There’s a tornado in Arkansas – if anybody can get me a shot, I’ll put it on the air and send you a CNN mug!’ So everyone’s a reporter. And also it strikes me that if Hitler was around, he’d start up a blog, and he’d have millions of followers.”
Landis followed up by stating that the Internet offers access not only to information but also misinformation, providing a meeting ground for “all these Neo-Nazis and S&M people” to get together. He then moved away from thematic questions to the question of gore:
“You heard the audience reaction to the…cum shots, I guess – what are you going to call them? What do you think of that?” “Well, I don’t know,” Romero admitted. “That’s my ticket to ride; it always has been. So that shit has to be there; that’s the mandate.”
Landis then launched into a long monologue about the 1962 shockumentary MONDO CANE and more particularly about Haskell Wexler’s MEDIUM COOL. As Landis recalled, MONDO CANE contains a long sequence of a sea turtle that crawls up on the beach to lay its eggs and then, sick with radiation poisoning, crawls inland instead of heading out to see. In MEDIUM COOL, someone wonders why the cameraman didn’t put the camera down and turn the turtle around instead of letting it wander to its death. This question is certainly relevant to DIARY, which asks whether “documenting reality” is not just a rationalization for disengaging from reality, striking the stance of a passive observer when the moral thing to do would be to take action; unfortunately, Landis never quite fashioned his observation into a question, and he ended up eating several minutes from a very short interview. Eventually, Landis got around to asking Romero about the size of his crew, which was very small.
“We were all part of the crew,” Romero explained. “It was going back to the roots and doing it really guerilla.” Landis next asked if Romero had storyboarded the film, since it consists of long camera takes that move from room to room, encompassing several scenes in a single shot – something impossible to render in a storyboard panel.
“No, it was all planning,” said Romero. “Some of those shots…the scene where they go into her house, through the living room, into the dining room, into the garage and back out of the garage – where do you put the lights? The camera was 360, so everybody was an acrobat, ducking under the lens when the camera came past you. It was all planning. The shot was twenty minutes. The cast was great. They had a lot of theatre experience. I think they could have gone from scene one all the way to the end of the movie, all in a single shot. I’m sure you’ve worked with actors who work in movies all the time: they do one line and then you say, “Go on…!”
Landis agreed: “It’s really depressing when you’ve got an actor who’s costing you millions of dollars and they don’t know their dialogue. You think, ‘What the fuck are you doing in your trailer?’”
Landis then expressed amazement that Romero was able to shoot his film in only 23 days, asking who the director of photography was.
“A guy named Adam Swica,” said Romero. “I had worked with him before on a little film I made called BRUISER, and I’ve always wanted to work with him again. He just really knocked this out of the park; he was great.”
“Give me a ballpark figure how much it cost?” Landis prodded. “Well, I’m officially supposed to say under $4-million,” Romero said. “Unofficially, it’s…under 4.” Landis: “It’s incredibly impressive. And you used real footage.”
Romero: “After we shot all the principal stuff…I wanted to do this quilt of memorable images of all this shit we’ve seen over the years. And then we all did voices at first [before bringing in Wes Craven, Stephen King, Guillermo Del Toro, and Quentin Tarantino]; we tried ‘em on for size.”
Regarding his cameo as a police captain who lies about the living dead, claiming they do not exist, Romero said, “I used to have a Hitchcock thing going on for the first six or seven films I made. Then I gave up; I started to really look bad.” Landis added that he thought Romero looked quite convincing in DIARY, then asked if the director had any other memories of the film, besides chaos.
“No, just wonderful memories.” Romero claimed. “This is God’s truth: it really was like going back to the roots, working with friends. You know how that is – it’s the thing that you really want, especially when you’ve done a couple of bigger things.”
Landis then launched into another monologue about a Japanese character seen in the film, seen in a brief YouTube video, who provides a glimpse of what is happening with the living dead in Tokyo. Landis felt the dramatic device worked in the context of DIARY OF THE DEAD, but it reminded him of something similar in INDEPENDENCE DAY, a multi-million dollar film about a global invasion, loaded with special effects and production value, in which “the entire Middle East is portrayed by three guys in a turban, and there’s one Japanese guy.”
“Pretty much you did something like that once, didn’t you?” Romero responded.
“Yeah,” said Landis, “but it was meant to be funny!” Asked what’s next on his agenda, Romero said simply, “Beats the shit out of me.” Which Landis took as a good sign, explaining:
“I’ve talked to you over the years when you’ve said, ‘Fuck this – I’m not going to do it anymore!’ So you’re in a good mood.”
“Yeah, I’m happy,” Romero agreed. “I’ll do this anytime somebody writes a check.”
Landis wrapped up by exhorting the audience to tell their friends to see the film when it opens on Friday. “I’m very thrilled to tell you that I love the movie -. I thought it was great!” Landis enthused. And then, referring to one of the film’s most memorable images, he added. “But I don’t think an Amish guy could actually put a scythe through his head so that it impaled the zombie behind him, too!”