Forty years after the revolution in low-budget nightmare splatter that was Night of the Living Dead, it’s worth remembering that that film’s garish power, apart from the sheer, outrageous, who will be the next to get chomped? insanity of its violence, arose out of the scary elusiveness of what it said about America. There was no exact correlation between the attack of flesh-hungry zombies — and the attack on them (”Kill the brain and you kill the ghoul!”) — and the horrors of Vietnam or the general late-’60s breakdown. The metaphor was there, but it was ominously free-floating.
Contrast that with George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead, in which Romero has the dead rising up for the umpteenth time, this time chowing down on a new generation of human meat. The opening sequence, in which a local news report gets turned into an eyewitness slaughterhouse on the street, is vintage Romero: explosive, funny, bristling with dementia. But the half-dozen college kids who scurry, by van, from one location to the next (abandoned hospital, Amish farm, rich kid’s mansion), fleeing the zombies at every turn, aren’t too much different from the Abercrombie & Fitch ciphers of Cloverfield. Here, as well, we track the characters through one kid’s shaky camcorder, a trendy device that has never worked as effortlessly as it did in The Blair Witch Project. There’s a great deal of babble about how images of the zombies are being taped, all over the world, on personal cameras and shown on the Internet. The film keeps telling us that we’ve become a society of passive voyeurs, hiding behind our technology. (We’re the real zombies, get it?) But the message is far from fresh, and you didn’t have to pretend Cloverfield was making a statement.
That said, Diary of the Dead isn’t bad; it’s a kicky B movie hiding inside a draggy, self-conscious-work-of-auteurist-horror one. There are some gruesomely imaginative deaths, the kind that get you laughing because they’re as snappy as speed-metal power chords. In a medical ward, a zombie gets zapped with a defibrillator, and her singed, bugging eyes make for a priceless effect. And when the stalking dead are viewed on a flickering home-surveillance system, it has a grand and creepy immediacy. As horror, Diary of the Dead delivers the gross-out goods, but only the gullible will confuse these ritualized shock-videogame tactics with something relevant. B-