Uploading the undead

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Diary of the Dead: 95 minutes. Rated: Unclassified. Director: George Romero. Starring: Debra Moynihan, Joshua Close

Still from Diary of the Dead'Your films are very Freudian,' observes one fan to the bearded filmmaker on stage*. There are groans from sections of the crowd. 'They're horror films!' another fan retorts, intimating that such films are what they are, and should remain splendidly so.

In truth, the appropriate response to a George Romero film lies somewhere between. His most famous works, the zombie movies that comprise his Dead cycle (from 1968's Night of the Living Dead onwards) have certainly invited their fair share of over-interpretation. But by Romero's own admission, he's never just chasing scares.

For Romero, the concept always comes first — whether it's a treatise on humans' unwillingness to get along, even when lives depend on it, a satirical comment on the rise of consumerism, or an examination of how humanity can become lost amid a clash of ideologies.

The zombies are added later. In that respect, they are incidental. Romero is more interested in human behaviour. The zombies could be replaced by any large-scale natural or man-made disaster that would force human beings out of their usual patterns of existence and subject them to the ultimate test of character.

Romero's latest, high-concept gore-fest, Diary of the Dead, tackles the subject of new media, and the ways in which the dominance of the 'blogosphere' has determined how news is disseminated, accessed and interpreted.

Romero fears that the rise of online video sharing and online soapboxing has, rather than democratising the news, led to increased tribalism that is divisive rather than unifying, as people will automatically go to sources with whom they are predisposed to agree. It's a world he believes is dominated by opinion, rather than fact.

But he doesn't damn new media from on high — a benevolent god prodding his people back towards the true path. Nor does he assume the role of bitter grandfather pining for the good old days before technology overtook our lives.

Diary inhabits the new media world, visually and thematically. It speaks the language of that world. It articulates Romero's fears, but also celebrates the benefits when control of the news is taken back from politicised or self-serving media corporations by 'the people'.

The plot is shoestring: a group of university film students flee across the country in search of loved ones and safety following a zombie outbreak — the dead have been coming back to life, bearing an insatiable and instinctive hunger for human flesh.

Romero doesn't hold back on the atmospheric thrills or stomach-churning gore that go hand-in-hand with this kind of genre film. However the tension comes from the fact that one of the students, wannabe documentarian Jason Creed (Close), becomes obsessed with capturing every brutal detail of their ordeal on camera.

This raises questions regarding the ethics of filming real-life 'horrors' — and, as a result, not intervening to prevent said horros — in the name of sharing a perceived truth with the world. It also critiques the veracity of that 'truth' when the subjectivity of both cameraman and editor intervene before the events are broadcast.

Part of the film's appeal is the way it evolves visually, as Jason's single-camera perspective is joined by footage from a mobile camera phone, then a second video camera found discarded in a deserted hospital and, later, bits of footage salvaged from surveillance cameras and news broadcasts uploaded from the internet.

The philosophising is a little heavy-handed, although that is perhaps appropriate in the name of verisimilitude in this mock student film. And while the film is far from Romero's best, it is well acted for the most part, skilfully executed and full of thrills and ideas. It is a horror film, but it is not just a horror film.

*George A. Romero was in Australia this week to participate in a retrospective of his films at the Melbourne International Film Festival, including Diary of the Dead. The film is available to purchase online on Region 1 DVD.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles have been published by The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier Mail and ASif. He is a contributor to the forthcoming volume American Exorcist: Critical Essays on William Peter Blatty. Email Tim

Topic tags: Diary of the Dead, George Romero, Debra Moynihan, Joshua Close, Night of Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead



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Existing comments

At last an honest and dare we say it intelligent review of Romero's latest.

Jeff Ritchie | 20 February 2009  

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