5 May 2008

DIARY OF THE DEAD (Dir. George Romero, 2007, US) - Zombie's take on the Media

Romero's output as a film maker has slowed considerably ever since the youth market went into overdrive, and it was the recent success of Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead zombie parody that reminded audiences of the vital contribution Romero made to a genre that he single handedly created way back in the late 60's as America was on the verge of momentous social and political upheveal. The zombie had existed before in American cinema but arguably it was Romero who repositioned the zombie as a motif for social and political allegory in his groundbreaking 1968 low budget horror film, The Night of the Living Dead. 1968 has become somewhat of a key year in terms of popular mass revolution and political disillusionment - it was the year of Martin Luther King's assassination and the Student Protest Movement in Paris, France.

Aside from Romero's fascination with the Dead films, he has made some very interesting, marginal films like The Crazies and Martin that also toy with generic conventions like the Vampire myth, but today, it is difficult for Romero to secure financing for film projects. His latest Dead installment, Diary of the Dead shows Romero at his most relentlessly inventive and innovative, reworking the conventions that he helped to establish and smash over the years. Though Diary of the Dead is superior to Romero's previous studio film, Land of the Dead, it has fallen short of commercial expectations, which is hugely disappointing, as this is a film that Romero has clearly aimed at the postmodern MTV generation who would revel in the clever intertextual references.

Romero has repeatedly used the Dead films as a deeply allegorical vehicle for exploring a broad range of social and political anxieties and fears. Beginning with the original Dead film, Romero used the brutally unforgiving ending of Ben's death as an obvious means of documenting his leftist political attitudes towards the Civil Rights Movement - the burning of Ben's body in the final few minutes is social reality, and very few films up to that point in American cinema had permitted the central character to be a resourceful and competent black man. Released in 1979, Dawn of the Dead, was an indictment of the consumerist age that American society was entering, and the appropriation of the shopping mall as a symbol of materialist disgust continues to hold equally important relevance today. Day of the Dead, Romero's 3rd Dead film, was released in 1980s, to a period of right wing conservatism that detailed the rise of militarism. 2005 saw the release of Land of the Dead, the 4th Dead film, and Romero's exploration of a post 9-11 American society under the dubious leadership of George Bush. Though this was a studio film for Universal, it signalled Romero's shift back into mainstream after a lengthy hiatus, and it was a film that took on the issue of Oil and Iraq in extremely metaphorical terms.

Romero's latest film, Diary of the Dead, is an independently financed film, and minus studio interference this time around, the film does seem much more in keeping with Romero's original satirical and fatalistic approach to the zombie genre. This is Romero's commentary on the mass media, and it is an effective critique on the current age of reality TV, new media and the Internet, and self reflexive film making. Romero could go on making Dead films for the remainder of his career but one cannot help but feel that for Romero to cement his position within film history, he must extend his ouvere and be prepared to take on new challenges. Having said this, I guess it would be extremely difficult for somebody as marginal and anti-establishment as Romero to find the neccessary financing to help him explore new avenues.

At times, Diary of the Dead seems like a greatest hits of Romero's dead films, but the sequence at the hospital towards the beginning of the film, and the use of the subjective point of view through the eyes of a film maker, ensures that this film does not become just another formulaic and redundant zombie fright fest. Perhaps the most interesting politically charged sequence comes when the gang of middle class white kids are confronted by a gang of black militants. The militant black leader who heads up the gang is represented as fiercely intelligent, powerful and moderate in his political views, suggesting that if and when society collapses, power relations will become inverted to such an extent that survival will remain on the side of those who have been consistently overlooked within society, namely the disenfranchised. What this sequence proves is Romero's consistency with the sympathetic approach he has always taken towards African American people, ensuring he never reduces them down to plain archetypes or heinous misrepresentations.

Romero really needs to seriously consider putting an end to his series of Dead films but the problem with such a dilemma is that society is forever changing, and each decade seems to provide enough allegorical material for Romero to make just one last Dead film.

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