The film-trade press tends increasingly to hail Pittsburgh’s George A. Romero as “the godfather of gore,” in a smirking nod to his new picture, Diary of the Dead, and to the persistent influence of Romero’s breakout film of 1968, Night of the Living Dead. The facile assumption, here, is that Romero’s films must rely more upon visceral shock value than upon narrative ferocity or scathing social criticism – qualities that constitute his larger impact as a filmmaking artist.
The medium is outright and unapologetic horror, of course – a perennially hardy escapism-or-allegory genre that had embraced gratuitous “gore” as a ticket-selling commodity several years before Romero had seasoned Night of the Living Dead with such incidental excesses. If any human agency counts as a “godfather of gore,” it must be the short-lived partnership of Herschell Gordon Lewis and David F. Friedman, whose first-of-a-kind collaborative films Blood Feast, Two Thousand ManiacsandColor Me Blood Red (1963–1965) had championed the pageantry of bloodletting spectacle to the near-exclusion of storytelling values. (Interesting to see a homage-to-Lewis sequence turn up in the Jason Reitman’s indie-film Oscar-bait hit Juno. Enough with the digressions, already.)
Romero’s investment in the genre, however, involves a steadfast commitment to bigger and more troubling ideas about the fragile state of civilization. Imitations, remakes and homages abound, but Romero stands apart as the Genuine Article. (Among the more sharply attuned nods to Romero: Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, from 2002; Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s Shaun of the Dead, from 2004; and Robert Kirkman’s comics-chapbook novel The Walking Dead, from 2003 et seq.)
Romero’s previous such picture, Land of the Dead, goes so far as to channel the humane, defiant desperation of John Steinbeck, suggesting a Grapes of Wrath-like prophecy of America as a Third World country – harshly divided amongst a small monied class, an impoverished mass population, and a gathering horde of once-human predators, with no remedies in sight and no perceptible middle-class buffer zone. Romero, like Francis Ford Coppola with his Godfather suite or Ingmar Bergman in his film-by-film search for a Meaning of Life, has accomplished more with one recurring concern, so outlandish that it becomes plausible, than many another writer–director from either the maverick or studio-establishment ranks could perform with any succession of self-contained ideas.
The essential Romero-series films, after Night of the Living Dead, include 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, 1985’s Day of the Dead and 2005’s Land of the Dead, first of the series to boast a corporate-Hollywood pedigree. With Diary of the Dead, due Feb. 15, Romero pulls back to a simpler balance between social commentary and audacious jolts. The emphasis here is upon a youthful ensemble cast of technology-smart survivors – proving Romero at 68 to be as thoroughly in touch with a discerning new-generation audience as he had been with that first film during a period of popular unrest over such Real World concerns as the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam.
It helps, too, that Diary shares an element of Web-and-video savvy in common with a big youth-audience hit of the moment, Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield, and with 1999’s immensely successful The Blair Witch Project. As civilization disintegrates in an outbreak of some hideous plague, the college-student protagonists (more perceptive and quick-thinking than their camera-wielding counterparts in Blair Witch) find themselves growing ever more distrustful of the corporate news media – and in possession of video-recording capabilities and Internet documentation that might yield a truer account of the catastrophe. The age of do-it-yourself video suggests, after all, a polemic with the homogenized and manipulated “facts” of the mass-consumption media: I shoot, therefore I yam.
Aspiring filmmaker Jason Creed (played by Josh Close) is at work on a fictional shooting project in Mr. Penn’s Woods – guerrilla filmmaking of convenient portability and desperate vulnerability. Word reaches the troupe about episodes of real-life terrors, if not calculated terrorism – suggesting that the project’s make-believe crisis might have some basis in precognitive imagination. The troupe includes Jason’s impatient girlfriend, Debra (Michelle Morgan); a combative fellow film-schooler named Tony (Shawn Roberts); actress Tracy (Amy C. Lalonde); tech-crew fixit-man Eliot (Joe Dinicol); and a doubtful professor (Scott Wentworth).
Seeking a haven at Debra’s home in Scranton, Pa., the crew finds such ominous indicators as an abandoned hospital, countryside folks determined to take a stand against encroachment, soldiers-turned-vigilantes-and-worse and, at length, a seemingly fortified stronghold occupied by another member (Philip Riccio) of the filmmaking bunch. Where Cloverfield tells persuasively of a disaster from a viewpoint of amateur video-camera footage, Diary of the Dead compounds such an illusion with a keener emotive intimacy and a heightened realism.
The characters’ distrust of government and the mass media advances the attitude that Romero’s films have conveyed all along, beginning with the depiction of on-the-spot news-reportage as a dumbfounded bluff in Night of the Living Dead. Diary cuts deeper yet, winding up in a tough-minded antiwar stance that might move the absorbed viewer to tears of rage.
Among a smartly arrayed ensemble cast, Michelle Morgan delivers the most emphatic heroic presence. Amy C. Lalonde conveys the right mixture of high-spirited wit and fearful response. The special-effects shocks, all the more startling for their randomness, combine old-school prosthetic effects with digital enhancements. The location-shooting scenery, in Ontario, passes convincingly for East-by-Northeastern Pennsylvania.
Prowler and Fishhead co-author Michael H. Price launched his career as a daily-newspaper film critic in 1968 – just in time to watch George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead gerrymander the boundaries of a genre. Price’s arts-scene coverage can be found at www.fortworthbusinesspress.com, and in the Times Leader of Wilkes-Barre, Pa. – Romero country.