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Horror With Smarts 

George Romero promotes the DIY ethic in the clunky yet catchy 'Diary of the Dead'

Normally, dead people do little besides, perhaps, helping to unite us in shared grief. But in George Romero's world, the dead do much, much more. In fact, the very notion of a "living dead" person owes its basic form to Romero's films.

And he doesn't want us to forget it. In the script for Diary of the Dead, Romero reminds us of the zombie rules that he set, and that others have broken. For example, says college student Jason Creed (Joshua Close), dead people do not run; if they ran, they'd probably snap an ankle.

But much more important than the no-running rule is George Romero's central conceit for zombification: You don't become a living-dead person only by getting bitten by another living-dead person. If that was how it worked (as it does in Resident Evil, 28 Days Later and the upcoming World War Z), the plague of living dead would be easily containable.

No, Romero's version is far more horrifying: Once the living-dead plague starts, anyone who dies, anywhere, comes back as a flesh-eating zombie. Have a heart attack? Wake up and eat flesh. Overdose on heroin? Rise from the grave and chaw on entrails. Get shot in a bloody war for oil? Come back and feed on your commander in chief.

That's the terrifying world of Diary of the Dead, which picks up the post-Blair Witch Project mode of presenting a film that appears to be the work of amateur videographers, a sort of "found document," or fake-u-mentary.

The plot of Diary is the same as virtually every other zombie-movie plot: Dead people decide not to be dead anymore and start eating living people. As usual in Romero's movies, the undeadness starts in the wilds of Pennsylvania. There, a group of college students are filming a horror movie when they hear disturbing news on the radio: Those who have shuffled off this mortal coil are pulling it back on, as though getting dressed for dinner.

The young filmmakers and their drunken, middle-age professor then get in an RV and drive around, encountering unpleasant people who have passed away, a mute Amish man who has some serious scythe skills, a group of African Americans who seem to have the only organized response to the new-dead order, and the National Guard, who, in light of the nationwide disaster, have slightly reinterpreted the motto "path to honor."

Unlike Romero's last film, Land of the Dead, this one isn't simplistically campy. Instead, it's actually got some smarts, and smarter still, it eschews name actors and Hollywood funding in favor of unknowns and a budget of only $2 million. To put it in perspective, that's the amount of money that David Geffen uses to wipe his butt on days when he doesn't have diarrhea.

So Romero has really returned to his roots. His first "Dead" movie, Night of the Living Dead, was made for $114,000 in 1967, which is roughly equal to $2 million in 2008, or 10 minutes of spending on the Iraq war.

Which is actually a big part of Romero's agenda. Much of Diary is a critique of the news industry as being too easily manipulated by government. So when the first reports of living-dead people show up on local news, they're quickly censored and replaced with edited versions that show no such incidents.

But! Nobody is tuning to the TV news, because everyone is putting up videos instantly on the Internet. Soon, the information structure of the whole planet has shifted to homemade sources, grassroots video and amateur reporting.

However, Romero isn't simple-minded enough to be a naïve cheerleader for this move. The urge to videotape also creates in his characters an inability to leave moments unrecorded, an emphasis on film over reality and an increasing tendency to run a camera rather than intervene.

All of this could be obvious--and seeing as this is something of a grade-Z movie, it's not totally inobvious--but the writing and directing is too smart to turn Diary of the Dead into a polemic. Instead, like the best of the grade-Z movies of the past, it goes places and does things that higher-budget films would be reluctant to try.

For example, the acting is unprofessionally schlocky at times. I find this refreshing. If there's one thing I hate, it's professionally schlocky acting. The goofball, overly rehearsed, lame frat-boy attempts at zaniness that you see in today's parody films are so clearly the work of people who want to be Actors that it utterly fails to capture the naïf joy of real people stumbling through a scene. I sometimes wonder if the current craze for "reality" shows is in some way part of a desire to see something unprofessional.

It's not that Romero isn't a pro; he's been at this for more than 40 years. It's that he understands that sometimes, art is better unpolished. It's something painters all understand: There's a point when adding another mark doesn't make the painting better; it just makes it slicker. The mainstream of entertainment is all about slickness; it's about hiding the little man behind the curtain. As Romero's documentarians wander through the post-apocalyptic zombie landscape, they're horrified. But as they see the network news regurgitate government propaganda while individual citizens post 100 perspectives on the truth to countless Web sites, they note something: The mainstream has vanished. It's been swallowed up by the great mass of those it sought to entertain, pacify and coddle.

The movement toward do-it-yourself, the miniaturization of production and the possibility that anyone can make anything is not just the message of Diary of the Dead; it's also the medium, and it makes something that, while occasionally clunky, is also very scary, and strangely catchy.

More by James DiGiovanna

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