Sunday, June 29, 2008

#5: Diary of the Dead vs. Thriller


Diary of the Dead
Directed by George A. Romero
Written by George A. Romero
U.S. debut September 20, 2007

Directed by John Landis
Written by John Landis and Michael Jackson
MTV Premiere December 2, 1983

Look: I LOVES me some zombie movies.

This love undoubtedly stems from a Halloween night fairly early in my youth, when my mother let me stay up late and watch George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead. It was like no horror movie I had ever seen before (and with two older brothers, I had watched many horror movies behind my parents' backs). By the early 1980's, the horror genre was pretty much overtaken by slasher films like the Friday the 13th franchise, the Halloween sequels, and so on.

Here was this black and white movie where the "bad guy" was basically humanity itself; the manifestation of our society's fear of death. The "monster" was the idea that there is no Hell or Heaven, and we are doomed to either die by the hands of our loved ones or be the ones to consume them ourselves. Romero's most important message in Night, and pretty much all of his subsequent zombie movies, was that even with these horrifying creatures roaming the land, the real threat to existence was our own fucked up society. While Romero insists that his casting of a African American as the protagonist in his film was not a statement on race, it's hard to deny the impact of the film's ending, where Duane Jones' Ben is murdered by a posse of white rednecks.

If you need some context, just consider the fact that NotLD was released the same year that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

I was hooked, and went along for continued rides with Romero on the increasingly awesome Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead. I've followed Romero even closer than that, from older films like The Crazies to later stuff like Creepshow and The Dark Half. He's one of my favorite horror directors.

That said, I hate to admit that Diary of the Dead is pretty awful.

If 2005's lackluster Land of the Dead was the start of a downward trajectory in Romero's Dead series, Diary is the insanely steep drop-off point. Here Romero attempts to "reboot" his series by making a more homemade, down-to-earth re-introduction to the zombie apocalypse he presented in Night of the Living Dead. He also experiments with a new way of telling the story by presenting it as a pseudo-documentary being shot by characters in the movie itself (the old "movie within a movie" trick).

The effect is somehow the reverse of what Romero intended: because the acting is so bad and the "reality" of the docu-style footage so unrealistic, the viewer is taken even further out of the movie experience. It becomes so obvious that this is a movie that everything the story hinges on -- this idea that this is hand-shot footage of the zombie epidemic and its aftermath -- fails to coalesce into something that engrosses the audience. It tries to be a part of our world, with references to the Internet, blogs and YouTube, but it just winds up feeling like it was written by someones technophobic grandpa.

The movie is not helped one iota by the presence of a narrator, one of the survivors from the movie unspooling before us, whose droning, apathetic voice almost immediately begins to bother. Narration is a tricky thing in a movie, and can so often be done poorly. At its worst, it treats the audience like idiots who couldn't possibly piece together a story. Diary of the Dead is narration at its worst.

"We made a film," says the unenthused voiceover, "the one I'm going to show you now." I challenge you not to laugh as the narrator says, "I've added music occasionally, for effect. Hoping to scare you. You see, in addition to trying to tell you the truth, I am hoping to scare you. So that maybe you'll... wake up." The title of the documentary these idiots have apparently made? The Death of Death.

Ho. Ly. Shit.

There is more ham served in introduction to our young student filmmakers then at most Irish funerals. Overacting is especially noticeable when the people being filmed aren't supposed to be acting at all. The horrible dialogue comes at such a fast clip that you'll have a hard time deciding which lines to rewind and hear again to confirm, "Did he really just fucking say that?"

These lines include gems like:
- "The problem doesn't seem to be that people are waking up dead, but that dead people are waking up."
- "Fuckin' mummies get all the girls."
- "We've come here concerned about people crossing the border into our country. But that's not the problem anymore. The problem now is all those creatures crossing the border between life and death."
- "What's wrong with him?" "He's dead! That's what's wrong with him!"

My favorite howler is spoken by a Japanese woman, who atones: "Don't bury dead, first shoot in head!"

Like all of Romero's previous zombie efforts, there is an underlying message. Typically, I'd use the word "subtext," but with this movie, the "subtext" commentary on our fame and information obsessed society is so obvious that you'll be looking for an underlying movie beneath the message. Subtlety does not exist in this dojo, sensei. When you're dealing with a main character who won't follow his friends out of a zombie-infested hospital just so he can charge his video camera, there's no need to look too far beneath the surface of things.

Aside from the atrocious acting and ridiculous characters, the most disappointing aspect of Diary is the extreme lack of entertainment value. While the special effects are gory and realistic (Romero consistently delivers those goods, it's one of the few reliable things in life), the characters and their choices annoy so much that the horror is never frightening. Worst of all, it's just no damn fun at all.

Before playing my movie, I was browsing the Video section of XBox Live and decided to download Michael Jackson's short film/music video, "Thriller." I've watched the 13 minute ode to horror movies three times now and I can honestly say: "Thriller" is a better zombie/horror movie than Diary of the Dead.

I don't give a shit what the world thinks of MJ now, but back when "Thriller" premiered, he was pretty much the fucking mack. No one else on the planet would have gotten away with a 13 minute zombie musical. And talk about meta: this was a video for a song about scary movies, featuring a movie within a movie.

MTV played it like clockwork.

And why not? Directed by John Landis after An American Werewolf in London was a box office hit, it opens with an homage to creature feature horror films of the 1950s, with Michael asking his girl to go steady (hearing him say "I'm not like the other guys" might literally kill you with hilarity) before morphing into a badass teenage werecat that knocks over trees with a single bitch slap.

It is revealed that we're watching Micheal Jackson and his girlfriend watch a movie featuring actors who look exactly like Micheal Jackson and his girlfriend. She is too scared to sit through the movie, so they exit to the street, where Micheal serenades his girlfriend as they walk down what is about to become the worst street in the world. Cue the fog-filled cemetery and a surprisingly creepy scene of the dead rising from their graves, all set to the funky sounds of VINCENT PRICE... RAPPING! If any potential blogger is reading tonight and can't think of a title for their blog, I highly suggest "The funk of 40 thousand years."

Mike and his girl find themselves surrounded by the undead, and then WHAMMO, we get a fucking incredible zombie dance number. MJ, in full zombie make-up, looks bad as hell.

Following that is a zombie attack on an abandoned house, and then the classic horror movie twist: it was all a dream... or was it? The whole thing is pretty much a blast and takes 1/8th the amount of time to entertain you as Romero's movie takes to fail.

Now, to be fair, it probably cost Romero the same to shoot the feature length Diary as Jackson spent to make "Thriller," but the problem with Diary is never budgetary. It was the acting, the writing, the unbelievable character motivations.

Perhaps Romero has spent so much time with the undead that he has forgotten how real people act.

For more on Thriller:
- Watch a poor quality version of the video for yourself at YouTube. Seek out a better copy if possible.
- All kindsa info, trivia and more at and

For more on Diary of the Dead:
- More information at Wikipedia and IMDB
- Clips and more at the movie's official MySpace page
- Buy Diary of the Dead at Amazon

Official movie trailer:

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