The Reeler

Features

February 12, 2008

Dead Man

Diary director George A. Romero trains his shaky camera on new-media zombies

"This isn't where we started": George A. Romero on the the set of Diary of the Dead (Photo: The Weinstein Company)

George A. Romero, the self-proclaimed "Michael Moore of horror," is one of those filmmakers whose history eclipses his actual work. Not that he necessarily has a problem with that.

"You may know this," he said during a recent New York press day for his new film Diary of the Dead, going on to relate the story of how the timeliness of his classic Night of the Living Dead is mostly due to coincidence; how he never set out to cast an African-American and how the film was already finished at the time Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Even though Night came out 40 years ago (and he stole the idea, he said, from I Am Legend writer Richard Matheson), the filmmaker's popularity still relies heavily on its original source. And Romero, who wears his hair in a greasy ponytail and frequently punctuates his sentences with "man" -- a throwback to his hippie days -- greatly embraces his nostalgia.

As such, Diary is Romero's first independently produced zombie film since 1985's Day of the Dead. (His 2006 effort Land of the Dead was produced by Universal). "I liked [Land of the Dead] well enough, but it seemed like it had lost touch with its routes -- like it was approaching Thunderdome," Romero told The Reeler. "And I said, 'Man, this isn't where we started.'"

But beyond Diary's aesthetic and filming style, little else about the film is rooted in contemporary cinema. Romero rejects the hyper-gory style that many of today's horror films embrace, choosing instead to focus on character and emotion -- features that not only reflects Romero's attitude toward contemporary cinema but serve as metaphors for his entire career.

"I'm old-fashioned in a lot of my tastes and techniques, not only in horror but in all kinds of film," Romero said. "I go to see Atonement and it doesn't get me. I go home and watch Brief Encounter, and you're sort of giggling at how corny it is, but at the end there's a tear in your eye. It works."

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Now, perhaps fittingly, Romero mainly caters to horror geeks and aging fanboys, and his movies are full of inside jokes and meta-fictional references. One of the first lines in his latest film, Diary of the Dead, is "Dead things don't move fast!" -- a blatant dig towards contemporary zombie films like 28 Days Later and 2004's Dawn of the Dead remake. The subject matter itself reflects another of Romero's contemporary concerns: Diary opens on a group of college students making a horror movie in the woods when zombies once again overrun the world. The young director, Jason Creed (Josh Close), decides to document the apocalypse on video.

This becomes the foundation for Romero's soapbox and the springboard from which most of drama in Diary erupts. "The zombie films have always grown out of my observations out in the world," Romero said. "And I wanted to do something about this emerging media -- the blogosphere. [It] strikes me as being full of dangers. There's this whole new wave -- an awareness of the blogopshere -- [where] everybody out there is shooting and throwing information, or at least opinion, at us"

Wait, the Internet is dangerous? We are still talking about a zombie movie, right?

Indeed, Romero argues that Jason's desire to document the action around him -- his obsessive MySpace video uploading and downloading instead of helping his friends survive -- is the real threat. Romero's point-of-view in Diary is personified by Jason's girlfriend Debra (Michelle Morgan), and the two spend a good amount of the film arguing the merits of documentary filmmaking. Ultimately, Debra relents and recognizes the importance of Jason's documentary, but according to Romero, Jason's actions are symptomatic of the time we live in: a time of endless, and unmitigated, streams of information and images, mostly due to the egalitarianism the Internet and even cable TV afford.

And though Romero may reject the homemade-video ethos of the Internet, Diary embraces its aesthetic. Romero adopts a shaky, handheld camera style and faux documentary conceit to simulate the way he said viewers are now accustomed to receiving information. "We tried to make each [Dead film] look like films of that decade," Romero said, adding that updating his shooting style also came out of a desire to return to the indie-style filmmaking of his past. "As far as the handheld stuff, in my mind it was the only way to go. It's about people becoming reporters."

But in the end, the zombies are still what get people in the theater and, four decades on, lining up for Romero's signature on their Night of the Living Dead DVDs. "We tried, unsuccessfully, to make some high-minded, Bergmanesque, thing," Romero said. "We could never get anyone interested in it, so we said, 'Oh well -- let's make an exploitation film.'"



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