Sense of Wonder: Diary of the Dead Hollywood Preview with Romero & John Landis

A state trooper becomes one of the living dead.
Four months since the West Coast premiere of DIARY OF THE DEAD at Screamfest, I took advantage of the opportunity to see it again at the American Cinematheque’s preview on Wednesday night, in the Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Blvd. This is the theatre where I saw ALIEN during its initial run, so the venerable venue has many pleasant monster movie memories for me. As if that were not reason enough to see the film two days before it officially opens, there was an additional inducement: George A. Romero would be in attendance to discuss the film. Of course, I had just had a one-on-on interview with him the day before, but I wasn’t able to squeeze every question in during the limited time, so why not check out what he had to say the fans at the Egyptian?
I’ve heard some complaints about the film, allegations that it hits its political points too squarely on the nose; the acting is overdone; the dialogue is bad. Concerned that I had overlooked some flaws during the initial excitement of seeing a brand new DEAD movie from Romero, I was eager for a second viewing, and I have to say that I still do not see most of what people are complaining about. The dialogue and performances are strong if not always outstanding. There are some moments that hit false notes, when an actor overdoes a bit or plays a scene without the polish one would expect from a seasoned professional, but overall these elements work together in the context of the film that is supposed to have an almost hand-made feel.
I do think there are a few minor problems with the pacing. Romero does have some points he wants to make, and they are stated fairly overtly rather than always being dramatized so that the audience can figure them out. I did find myself sometimes losing patience with the voice-over narration continually interpreting the events for me, but I can forgive the device to a certain extent, because what we are seeing in DIARY OF THE DEAD – unlike the superficially similar BLAIR WITCH and CLOVERFIELD – is not supposed to be raw “found” footage. DIARY OF THE DEAD is presented as if it were a finished “film within a film” (titled THE DEATH OF DEATH), which has been shot and edited by young film students desperate to make some kind of sense out of the worldwide disaster that has engulfed them. So it is completely understandable that Debra (Michelle Morgan) would be adding her voice to her boyfriend’s film. That doesn’t mean the device works perfectly, but it does make sense in context.
Other minor problems occur when Romero’s sense of humor pokes through what is otherwise a serious film. One can forgive the perhaps too pat contrivance of having the action at the beginning and at the end perfectly mirror each other: THE DEATH OF DEATH begins production as a student-made horror film about a mummy. At the end, the character in the mummy costume really becomes one of the living dead and recreates – to far better effect – the action he was performing so badly before, right down to ripping the leading lady’s top off on cue. What is a little hard to forgive is that when the beautiful blonde from Texas abandons her friends (rather like the beautiful blonde who abandoned her comrades in FEAST), Romero cannot resist putting a funny “Texas” music cue on the soundtrack.

The star of the film within a film will re-enact her role in real life, down to the bodice ripping.

On the plus side, the film is filled with interesting ideas about the media and voyeurism. The overall tone is serious and convincing. For all the thematic rumblings, Romero does not skimp on the graphic mayhem, which is achieved with a combination of prosthetics and computer-generated imagery. His film captures a real sense of not just visceral horror but tragedy, both personal and global; there is an almost depressing sense of dread at the onset of the apocalypse, the fear that everything the characters are doing may be useless because this could quite literally be the end of everything.
After the film, fellow director John Landis sat down with Romero for a brief interview. Landis began with a not too well-informed question, asking whether DIARY OF THE DEAD was Romero’s first experience with CGI (which was used quite extensively on Romero’s previous film LAND OF THE DEAD.
Romero explained that this was not the first time and said, “Some of these effects are fantastic. Actors don’t let you melt their heads, so some of those things were predictably CG.” He added that CGI had the benefit of speeding up the production because there was less time spent on set-up and clean-up: “We shot this film – the principal framework of it – in twenty days; then we did three days extra. The whole idea is to get off the set, so it’s a lot easier to have somebody hold up a gun and a zombie falls. Then you paint in the flash and paint in the splatter.”
Here, Romero gave a shout out to Greg Nicotero, who has supplied splatter effects for several Romero films, including LAND OF THE DEAD and DIARY OF THE DEAD.
Read the rest of the interview at Hollywood Gothique
[Note: This article’s title has been changed from “Talking about Diary of the Dead.”]