Friday, August 8, 2008

diary of the dead, by george romero

So, this week, Film Club watched George Romero's new zombie picture, Diary of the Dead, as a way of continuing our investigation of representations of the contemporary hyper-mediated landscape.

This film represents a break in continuity for Romero: whereas his previous four Dead films (Night, Dawn, Day and Land) follow one another chronologically, Diary chooses instead to go back to the day when zombie activity first breaks out (what we could call "Z-Day," to borrow a term from Romero homage Shaun of the Dead).

Z-Day is a conceit invented by Romero in 1968 and has not visited by him again since then, and his return to it may represent something of an attempt to rethink the story for a contemporary audience. For starters, Diary represents a sustained attempt to realistically represent how a zombie attack would look through the lens of contemporary televised crisis reportage: we repeatedly see footage that conjures up memories of the LA riots / Columbine / 9-11 / Katrina, etc.:

It's worth noting, however, that this isn't really a new concern for Romero: even in the 1968 Night of the Living Dead, radio and television reportage is central to the way the story unfolds, and even back then Romero pretty much nailed how, in a crisis, people tend to huddle around the protective glow of anything that emits information. Diary recognizes, however, that the palette of these technologies has expanded pretty dramatically over the past forty years:

...and it expends a goodly amount of its run-time trying to consider how people (especially young people) might make use of the Internet to respond in a Z-Day type situation. (One wonders whether he was aware of last year's Internet event in which hundreds of bloggers made posts about the global zombie uprising.)

Ultimately, though, Romero is less interested in blogs and more interested in the Internet's capacity for widespread digital video distribution. Indeed, the film itself is primarily conceived of as a film-within-the-film (a documentary called The Death of Death), and a chunk of the film's narrative propulsion (although less than is ultimately possible) comes from our protagonist's desire to record more footage for the film.

In some ways, this decision to make the protagonist a young filmmaker invites a reading of the film as autobiographical, although Romero traditionally feels a deep pessimism about all human endeavor, and that includes here the impulse of "bloggers, hackers, [and] kids," to grow their own media. An incomplete version of the protagonist's film, once uploaded, gets 72,000 hits in eight minutes, which helps him to argue that the film is "saving lives," but one gets the feeling that Romero himself isn't convinced. "The more voices there are," says the film's narrator, "the more spin there is. The truth gets that much harder to find. In the end, it's all just noise."

These reflections upon media are pretty obviously the film's reason for existence: although the normal emotional touch-points of the zombie film (killing your friend who has become a zombie, etc.) are dutifully included, they are dispensed with in an almost perfunctory fashion. And ultimately, this year's earlier Cloverfield may be a better investigation of the intersection of monster apocalypse plus man-on-the-street video—Cloverfield's dialogue is far more naturalistic, and features less overt hand-wringing about the nature of mediation. Nevertheless, this still feels like something of a return to form for Romero: he still has considerable skill at imagining the way our contemporary infrastructure might slide into collapse, something Land, a film with no small whiff of science fiction about it, got away from a bit.

Next week we're sticking with horror and spectation, which means we're going to have to pay a pilgrimage to Horror and Spectation Ground Zero: 1960's bit of snuff nastiness, Peeping Tom.

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