One of Stephen Colbert’s best jokes to date came during the “Don’t Tase Me, Bro!” affair, when he pointed out, within the infamous video of undergraduate Andrew Meyer being tased by security forces, a student sitting nearby looking bored, not paying attention to his fellow student under attack. “He’s thinking, ‘I wish they’d stop tasing this guy,’” Colbert said, “‘so I can go home and watch him getting tased on YouTube.’”
While Colbert used the young generation’s disconnect from the real world, which they experience through mediated means more than any other generation ever has, as comic fodder, it’s much more serious stuff to George Romero, who earnestly tackles the same issue, and some others, in his latest filmic foray into the zombie genre—his genre—Diary of the Dead.
Though they must have been in production around the same time, as their release dates were separated by only a month or so, Diary of the Dead feels like a direct response to Cloverfield; both adopt a digital handheld aesthetic and use it to capture a monster attack, but the two films have very different intentions. If Cloverfield is the text, Diary… is the metatext. Where Cloverfield is all about immediacy and emotional manipulation—and quite successfully so —Diary of the Dead is about the ethics of video documentation and the function of the media.
A group of students, along with their professor (Scott Wentworth), are filming a cheap horror movie out in the woods when news reports start coming in about the dead coming back to life. (Essentially, it’s set on the same day as Romero’s initial zombie outing, Night of the Living Dead, if you can imagine that film as being set in the future, since there are cellphones and high-speed internet connections in this film.) Freaked out, they call it a wrap and hit the road, while the movie-within-the-movie’s director Joshua Close keeps the camera on in order to document their experience—to create a non-fiction monster movie. What we get is that footage, edited and presented by the characters under the name “The Death of Death”.
T.J. Miller, who played Cloverfield’s cameraman, is only confronted once about why he’s kept the camera recording while a Godzilla-esque monster decimates Manhattan. “People will want to see this,” he answers, and that’s that. Close, on the other hand, is treated with contempt by his comrades, confronted again and again about why he’s keeping his camera on. His professor derides his filming as a “document of cruelty,” and, as though refuting Miller’s response in Cloverfield, one of Close’s pals asks him, “who’s gonna be left to watch?”
Romero presents the act of filming as a compulsion bordering on a psychosis, and criticizes videojournalism, as well as its consumers, by arguing that there are times when, morally, it’s time to stop shooting and start helping, to stop watching and start acting. Romero gets to this right at the beginning, when a news crew asks paramedics to move their ambulance because it’s blocking their shot. When a corpse comes back to life, spoiling the correspondent’s report, rather than rush to help the paramedic being mauled she whines that her piece has been upended: “I thought she was supposed to be dead.” We create dichotomies, Romero says, between us and them, when in truth “they” are us.
Romero exposes Cloverfield as a fraud: video, even if it documents horrors in unbroken takes, doesn’t bring us any closer to reality; video only breeds detachment. Cloverfield may be thrilling, but it’s enjoyed from a protected distance. “We were trying to create a film that would be entertaining and, as a by-product of the subject matter, perhaps be a catharsis,” Cloverfield producer J.J. Abrams told Time magazine recently. “We wanted to let people live through their wildest fears but be in a safe place.”
But Romero worries about taking this too far; do people process fiction and non-fiction video differently, or is it all just emotional response from a safe distance and an invitation to passivity? Cameras are like guns—both are methods of self-defense (one physical, the other psychological) that are way “too easy,” eventually inuring the “shooters” to the horror of death.
To his credit, Close gets 72,000 hits on MySpace within eight minutes of posting his edited video footage. He argues that citizen journalists like him are essential for providing real information to the public; by showing other people how he and his friends have survived thus far, he argues, they may be able to figure out how to survive themselves. But Close’s girlfriend, Michelle Morgan, notes that with so much information on the internet, the chance for spin is even greater, until all information is reduced to just noise.
All of this complex film and media theory is nothing you can’t easily take from the film yourself, as Romero addresses it all point by point in voice-overs and declarative dialogue. Diary of the Dead is intellectually stimulating, but unfortunately little else. (Less The Death of Death than The Death of Subtlety.)
Romero goes through his criticisms pretty academically, neglecting baser concerns like narrative while doing so; his characters are cardboard and his actors, poor. This is less a story with themes that Big Themes with a perfunctory story built clumsily around them; Romero is content to keep the audience at an arm’s length, transforming the movie theater into the lecture hall.
In fairness, he crafts some effective moments of tension, usually when something is happening off-camera (in line with the idea that we can’t capture anything on video worth capturing?), but for the most part the film plods along, preaching to the audience rather than letting them in to it and then enlightening them.
But it might not be accidental that Romero keeps the audience at a distance. “You’re supposed to be affected,” Morgan says, referring to documentary video, “but you’re not.” It’s self-confirming: the film doesn’t work on an emotional level because it isn’t possible for it to, without becoming a fraud.
By the end, Romero has given up. Who wants to live in such a world, Close asks of his zombie-ravaged dimension, although one gets the suspicion that Romero is talking about our world as well. “All that’s left,” Close says, “is to record what’s happening.” That is, to document the world as it destroys itself, while remaining removed and neglecting to realize that not to act is an action in itself.
Written & Directed by: George A. Romero