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Review: Diary of the Dead at Screamfest

This year’s installment of Screamfest – the Hollywood horror film festival – got off to a great start on Friday evening with George A. Romero’s DIARY OF THE DEAD. The Mann Chinese 6 Theatre, located on Hollywood Boulevard, was surprisingly not sold out – which is incredible, considering that this is the new zombie film from George A. Romero, the man who pretty much invented the genre as we now know it. At least the enthusiast crowd was pumped up for the event, and several came attired as the living dead, one with a zombie baby.

Romero was a no-show at the film’s Hollywood premier. In his stead, producer Art Spigel read a note from the writer-director:

“Thank you very much for showing up to this thing. I’m in Europe; otherwise, I’d be there with you. Thanks to the Weinstein Company and to Screamfest for premiering the film on the West Coast for all of you. I loved doing DIARY OF THE DEAD; it’s really a liberating experience to make the film the way you want to. I got the idea because of the explosion of media out there. Everybody’s a reporter; everybody’s on MySpace and YouTube. There’s all these millions and millions of voices, and I wanted to do something that reflected that. So, anyway, it’s really one from the heart. I love it, and I hope you do too.”

With that, the preliminaries were over, and the film unspooled.

By now, you probably know that the story involves a group of students shooting a horror film when the living dead phenomenon strikes. With its use of documentary-style hand-held cameras, the comparisons to BLAIR WITCH PROJECT are inevitable but also extremely superficial. This is not a film about some people lost in the woods; it really is about the way that new digital technology has allowed people at the ground level to bypass traditional media to get their own voices heard. Although the film is told 90% through the eyes of our central characters, glimpses of from around the globe are provided through other video that has been uploaded to the Internet, allowing a worldwide picture of the Apocalypse to emerge.

The faux documentary approach – with action recorded in long, uninterrupted takes – seems diametrically opposed to Romero’s usual style (he has often said that he would rather have 100 bad shots than ten good shots, because with that much coverage he can make the scene work in the editing room), but it perfectly suits the material and thoroughly re-invigorates Romero’s approach to it. If you didn’t know that Romero himself directed this film, you would think it had been fashioned by some young brilliant young wunderkind director, reared on Romero’s work and eager to stake out his own claim to the territory.

The pacing is not great. Romero has points he wants to make and he takes his time making them. But the characterizations and performances are strong and the overall effect is one of chilling despair – the world is going to Hell, and it’s not clear that there is anything worth saving.

Obviously, Romero has aspirations that extend beyond simple splatter, but he does deliver. This is not a gore film, although it is punctuated with a series of shocking moments that should please the hard-core horror crowd. Along the way, Romero pokes fun at genre expectations (the film-within-a-film is filled with silly cliches, like a running girl who conveniently falls down so that the slow-moving mummy can catch up with her and rip her dress), then fulfills them (still in costume, the actor playing the mummy turns into a zombie near the end – and recreates his movie scene for real).

These witty asides – along with the occasional scythe through the skull, and a remarkable scene wherein a zombies eyes blow out when defibrillators are applied to her head – provide the horror movie shtick that fans expect. But the real horror comes from watching a document of the death of civilization, a nightmarish depiction of the world as we know it falling apart, while our characters struggle for survival and dance around the question of whether there is even any reason left to survive.