by Steve Habrat
For years, Quentin Tarantino has been hinting that he wanted to make a spaghetti western. He constantly gushes about Sergio Leone’s classic epic The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (it’s his favorite film) and he even nabbed a bit part as a Clint Eastwood type gunslinger in Takashi Miike’s tepid Sukiyaki Western Django. We knew his take on the gritty western was coming but we didn’t know exactly when. Well, that long rumored epic he has been hinting at is finally here and I must say, I think Mr. Tarantino has outdone himself and delivered one of the finest films of 2012. Red hot with controversy (the N-word is used A LOT), Django Unchained is a firecracker of a film that finds the talkative director at his wildest and craziest. For years, audiences have been split over his kung-fu/spaghetti western mash-up Kill Bill, some saying he flew too wildly off the rails (I hear many describe it as “weird”) while others smack their lips at the cartoonish carnage. Me, I was all for a Tarantino western and I couldn’t be happier with the results. Yes, Django Unchained is a difficult pill to swallow with its harsh look at slavery but remember that this is Tarantino’s version of history and that alone should tell you everything you need to know about the film. Django Unchained is ultimately a valentine to a genre that Tarantino adores, which makes it easy to forgive some of the edgier moments of this masterpiece. I would go so far to say this is Tarantino’s strongest film and the one that seems to be the most alive with the spirit of 70s exploitation cinema. Maybe this should have been the film he made for his portion of Grindhouse.
Set two years before the Civil War, Django Unchained begins on a cold Texas night with a group of recently purchased slaves being transported through the countryside by the Speck brothers. As the group shuffles through the night, they are approached by Dr. King Schultz (Played by Christoph Waltz), a German dentist turned bounty hunter who is looking for a specific slave named Django (Played by Jamie Foxx). Schultz is hunting for a trio of deadly gunslingers known as the Brittle brothers and Django is the only one that can identify them. Schultz and Django make a deal that if Django takes Schultz to the Brittle brothers, he will help Django locate his long lost wife, Broomhilda (Played by Kerry Washington), who has been sold to a sadistic plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Played by Leonardo DiCaprio). As Schultz and Django bond, Schultz realizes that Django has a talent for the bounty hunting business and he begins showing him the ropes. The two form a deadly alliance that sends them to Mississippi, where they begin devising a way to infiltrate Candieland, Candie’s ranch that is protected by his own personal army and houses brutal Mandingo fights.
Just shy of three hours, Django Unchained covers quite a bit of ground during its epic runtime. It is jam packed with Tarantino’s beloved conversations, something that he knows he is good at and just can’t resist. The conversations are as fun as ever, but sometimes Django Unchained is just a little too talky for a spaghetti western. It is just odd to me that Tarantino would be making a tribute to spaghetti westerns and then never shut his characters up (For the love of God, his favorite movie is The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly!). I would expect someone like Tarantino to know that the gunslingers from Sergio Corbucci’s west sized each other up through razor sharp stares and not through constant chatter. No worries though, as I am sure that most audience members won’t pick up on this so it doesn’t really damage the overall product. Despite this minor nuisance, if you are a fan of westerns or exploitation cinema, you will be bouncing off the walls with delight. Tarantino zooms his camera in and out of action suddenly (it is hilarious every single time), getting right in a characters face or zooming out suddenly from a close up to reveal a jaw dropping landscape behind them. He laces his film with tunes from Ennio Morricone and Riz Ortolani, two instantly recognizable names if you’re up and up on your Italian westerns and cannibal films from the 60s into the 80s. When the gore hits, it is cranked up to the max. The blood often looks like the red candle wax goop that poured from gunshot wounds or zombie bites in the 70s. Hell, even Franco Nero, the original Django from the 1966 film (if you’ve never seen the original Django, you might want to get on that), shows up for a brief cameo! Are you exploitation nuts sold yet?
Considering this is Tarantino’s show, the performances are all top notch and instant classics. I was a little worried about Foxx starring as our main gunslinger Django but he is on fire here. He channels Eastwood and Nero’s silent heroes like you wouldn’t believe while also adding a layer of quivering mad sass to the character (Get a load of the delivery of “I LIKE THE WAY YOU DIE, BOY!”). I loved it every time Tarantino would zoom in to give us a close up of his scowling mug as it chewed on a smoke through tangled whiskers. He wins our hearts through his heartbroken stare and his determination to get poor Broomhilda back from Candie’s clutches. He instantly clicks with Waltz’s Schultz, a devilishly funny and clever bounty hunter who packs a mean handshake and can talk himself out of any situation. Waltz brings that irresistible charm that he brought to Inglourious Basterds and settles into the character quite nicely, a cartoonish cowboy who nabs all the best dialogue. When Foxx and Waltz are on screen together, the chemistry between them unbelievable. One is strong and silent, a pupil who is eager to learn and win back his life while the other is chatterbox joker who is deadlier than anyone could imagine. They alone will lure back for seconds.
As far as the rest of the cast goes, DiCaprio practically steals the film away from Foxx and Waltz as the bloodthirsty Calvin Candie. He is sweet as sugar one minute and the next, he is ordering his men to feed a terrified runaway slave to a pack of hungry dogs. You won’t fully appreciate the power of his performance until you get to the dinner sequence, which finds tensions rising to the point where Candie snaps and cuts his hand on a champagne glass. I honestly think he will earn an Oscar nomination for the hellish turn. Then we have Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, an elderly house slave that spews more profanity than his character in Pulp Fiction. Along with Waltz, Jackson gets to deliver the feisty lines of dialogue and you can tell he loves every second of it. He disappears in the role to the point where you can’t even tell it is him. The role also serves as a reminder of just how good an actor Jackson truly is. Washington gives a slight and sensitive performance as Broomhilda, Django’s tormented wife. Keep your eyes peeled for an extended cameo from Don Johnson as Big Daddy, another wicked plantation owner who leads a bumbling early version of the Ku Klux Klan. Also on board are Michael Parks, Tom Savini, Jonah Hill, Bruce Dern, Franco Nero, and Tarantino himself, all ready to grab a chuckle from those who will recognize them.
As someone who has been a fan of Tarantino’s work for years, I have to say that I firmly believe that Django Unchained is his best film yet. It is unflinching with how it handles slavery while also staying shockingly lighthearted at the same time. It packs a gunfight that features more blood, guts, and gore than anything he threw at us in Grindhouse and it manages to tell a touching buddy story that creeps up on your emotions. I just wish Tarantino would have paid the extra dough and digitally scratched the film to make it feel even more like an authentic exploitation film. Overall, Tarantino proves that there is still some life left in the western genre and he gives it a massive shake up by fusing it to the blaxploitation genre. It may not be historically accurate but Tarantino has the good sense not to sugarcoat this dark chapter of American history. There are some tough moments but he never shies away from having fun and slapping a big smile right on your face. Long live Django and long live the spaghetti western. Django Unchained is one of the best films of 2012.
by Steve Habrat
I honestly do not think I have ever seen a film that has been as grainy and gritty as Maniac, the splatter film told from the perspective of the pudgy schizophrenic Frank Zito, a man who prowls the shifty streets of early 1980s New York City and kills women. The film, often evocative of the Son of Sam murders from the mid 1970s, out grains films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween, and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, a film that came shortly after Maniac but is far superior. You practically need a tetanus shot and two baths after you have watched this thing. Pretending that is it shining light on a deranged and shadowy mind, Maniac lacks any real depth, acting as just a random string of scenes where Frank stalks, murders, and maims his victims. After each segment, director William Lustig changes the setting, the victims, and then presses the repeat button. Maniac’s case is not helped out by the sneaking suspicion that this slightly seems like a fetish flick.
The premise of Maniac is quite simple. Frank Zito (Played by Joe Spinell) is a sweaty, overweight psycho who stalks women, murders them, and then scalps them. He shacks up in a tiny apartment in an unidentified burough of New York City. His tiny apartment is crammed with an assortment of weapons he uses to dispatch his prey along with countless creepy mannequins. Frank likes to dress the mannequins in clothing, nail the scalps he has collected to their heads, and sleep with them. Frank also engages in conversations with himself, usually acting as both himself and his deceased prostitute mother he is obsessed with. While out on a walk one day, Frank has his picture taken by a beautiful but utterly clueless photographer named Anna (Played by Caroline Munro). Frank tracks her down and instead of simply killing her, the two strike up a bizarre relationship that is unfathomable. When it seems that Frank has found love and may turn himself around, he begins repressing his urges to kill and it is only a matter of time before they break through the charismatic persona he is hiding behind.
One of the two parts that works in Maniac is the odd relationship between Anna and Frank. This adds some desperately needed anxiety to the film, we the viewers finding ourselves on the edge of our seat waiting for Frank to strike. It’s a clever move from writers C.A. Rosenberg and Joe Spinell who play on our fear that something is about to happen. It is also the only thing resembling a budding plot in Maniac, which is more concerned about getting to all the violence. The violence here has to rank as some of the most extreme you will ever see in a motion picture (aside from Cannibal Holocaust, Romero’s zombie flicks, and the work of Herschell Gordon Lewis). Credit should go to make-up and effects guru Tom Savini, who dreams up some truly nasty stuff that makes even the hardened viewers queasy. One scene, a sequence that has to be one of the most memorable moments in horror movie history and the most redolent of the Son of Sam, has Frank blowing the head off one victim at close range with a double barrel shotgun. It goes far beyond graphic, sickening, or shocking. It is downright fucked up in conveniently used slow motion.
The other part that clicks in Maniac is the supernatural finale the film tacks on, making Frank’s last victim himself. He ends up succumbing to his own inner demons that wield his own weapons and giggle while they close in. Frank lacks much profundity and he is fairly simple to figure out. He shows flashes of repentance and scolds his own actions when he kills. While he is on the prowl and stalking his prey, he lets out grunts and growls that sound animal and orgasmic. It is ultimately the path of the paranormal that gets the juices flowing in Maniac, enveloping us completely into Franks distorted and damaged mind, allowing us to see through his eyes rather than just tagging along side while he takes lives. While the real world stuff is unsettling, it is Frank’s world that provides the much needed spooks.
Almost cinema-vérité in execution and shot with what had to be the oldest camera the director could find, Maniac exploits the seedy and decaying look of later 70’s and early 80’s New York City. You never really feel comfortable or truly safe in Maniac. I kept wondering where a police officer was, why that woman was walking alone, and who else was lurking in the shadows waiting to stick me up for my wallet. The film does an excellent job transporting the viewer but the lack of any protagonist trying to catch Frank is Maniac’s demise. Instead of drawing the film out with countless scenes of torture and prolonged death sequences, maybe they could have thrown in a hard-boiled detective racing to find the killer before he claims another life. All we get an out-of-place overhead shot of what is supposed to be a helicopter looking for Frank and quick glimpses of newspaper headlines that declare there is a maniac on the loose. Furthermore, no character outside of Frank is properly developed so when someone meets a messy end, it’s just unpleasant. It doesn’t affect us on any emotional level like it should. For as hard as it tries, Maniac ends up being surprisingly below average but don’t count out the finale, which has a few tricks, decomposing corpses machetes, handguns, shotguns, and switchblades up it’s flannel sleeve.
Maniac is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
During the heyday of slasher horror flicks, when Freddy, Jason, and Michael roamed movie theaters slashing the throats of helpless, horny teens everywhere, the 1981 gem The Prowler was overlooked and lost in the sea of exploitation imitators. It is a shame because The Prowler is far scarier and better than any given Freddy or Jason romp. Sure, its premise of a crazed WWII veteran who received a “Dear John” letter during a tour of duty and then goes on a killing spree when he returns home is the stuff exploitation films dream of, but it is actually an invigorating direction with a killer introduction and some seriously wicked gore effects by FX wizard Tom Savini. If you consider yourself a fan of the horror genre in anyway, you need to get your claws on The Prowler. You are in for a real treat.
The Prowler begins with a vintage newsreel that shows soldiers returning home aboard a boat called the Queen Mary. A voiceover declares that while the homecoming is a happy event, some of the soldiers returned depressed and heartbroken from receiving a “Dear John” letter from their beloveds on American shores. The film then bounces to the 1945 graduation dance in Avalon Bay where Rosemary (Played by Joy Glaccum), who recently sent her boyfriend a “Dear John” letter, arrives with her new boyfriend Roy (Played by Timothy Wahrer). The two slip away to a secluded gazebo where they begin necking. Suddenly, the power is cut in the gazebo and the lovers find themselves brutally slain by a killer in unnerving combat gear. The film speeds ahead 35 years and finds Avalon Bay setting up for the same graduation dance. Despite the fear that the murderer may return, Sheriff George Fraser (Played by Farley Granger) departs on a fishing trip and leaves his steadfast deputy Mark London (Played by Christopher Goutman) in charge. As the dance gets underway, the combat clad murderer descends on the dance and begins racking up a body count. With the help of his crush Pam (Played by Vicky Dawson), Mark desperately tries to figure out who this prowler is before any more innocent victims meet their demise.
Director Joseph Zito makes a mature and atmospheric hack-and-slash romp that isn’t as concerned with how many naked girls he can squeeze into his runtime. Sure, there is the gratuitous nude scene but he practices infinite amounts of self-control, focusing more on delivering a proficiently made whodunit complete with a nod to the Psycho shower sequence. Yes, The Prowler holds the conservative mentality of all eighties slasher movies that, yes, if you have sex, plan on having sex, or fool around in any way, you will find yourself gutted by a pitchfork wielding nut job. But maybe it was the expert acting (the young cast is surprisingly strong for a film that seems to have been made on a shoestring budget), a creepy killer, and shifts into extremely gruesome violence that keep The Prowler afloat.
Zito also stages a well-rehearsed chase sequence to finish off the film, a climax that gives way to two major twists, one including the shocking reveal of the combat clad prowler. Gore guru Savini also lets loose and fills the screen with splashes of blood from sawed off shotgun blasts, bayonets to the throat, a pitchfork sealing two embraced lovers in each other’s arms for good, and an exploding head. I guess blowing one head up in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead didn’t quench that thirst. And how about that killer? A faceless killer who rivals Michael in the boogeyman department when he has his mask on! In a way, it is a disappointment when we do discover who the killer is because it removes some of the fear that this could be anyone causing the chaos. In the recent horror film book Shock Value, critic and author Jason Zinoman argues that once events are explained and there is a meaning given to the horror on the screen, the film looses its fear factor. In a slight defense of The Prowler’s reveal, once you process it, it is actually quite chilling that this person could be the one responsible for it. Either way, the reveal is a blessing and a curse.
The Prowler does have some moments where it takes a big bite of cheese. A scene right before the big reveal has to be one of the most gauche and uncomfortable scenes to watch. Zito must have been having an off day when he shot and edited the scene together. The scene features two characters staring at each other with smiles on their faces. They must have forgotten that there is a person who has just been blown away by a sawed off shotgun lying right next to them. I know that I would either be in hysterics or sick to my stomach from the grizzly scene. There is also an agonizingly slow scene where the killer flings his pitchfork around a room in search of Pam. Either the killer is enjoying dragging his work out or Zito was desperate to drag the runtime of the film out.
The good outweighs the bad in The Prowler and the result is a creepy exercise in boogeyman slash. It may be no deeper than the pool one victim meets their demise in and the beginning may be depressing, but The Prowler is high art compared to some of the installments in the Freddy and Jason franchises of that came out around the same time. If one were to watch it in the dark by themselves, this would make for a pretty good freak-out. I wish the film would get a bit more recognition than it does, as Zito has made more of a rewarding mystery than a teen fright movie. At the time, the film must have been a godsend of an option to Friday the 13th Part II or My Bloody Valentine, two slasher films that were doing their best to ruin the subgenre that same year. Love it or hate it, The Prowler puts a unique spin on a genre where the knives have long since rusted over. Pray that Hollywood never discovers it and remakes it.
The Prowler is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Corinne Rizzo
I don’t like scary movies. I am not interested in the thrill of axe murderers chasing a pretty lady down the street or guys that live under your bed and infiltrate your dreams. Corn syrup and red food coloring, gore and guts, never did it for me and still don’t, which is why I didn’t mind George Romero’s Martin so much.
Sure, George Romero isn’t known for good clean fun, but the one thing I could always tolerate about his films is that the gore is almost playful. The blood, bright red and reminiscent of paint, the prey/predator dance always has some edge to it where the viewer is left saying something along the lines of “really?” or “wait, why are they still alive?” And Martin follows in this pattern.
The film follows what appears to be a young man suffering from a family curse of the nosferatu. Though Martin’s case of vampirism is a technical one of syringes and razor blades instead of your typical Dracula slow moving and mundane. Martin, while appearing to be in his mid twenties, is also quite ancient. Romero sneaks these details in through simple conversation with a radio station and Martin’s cousin Christina, who is no stranger to the idea.
While the plot and premise of the film are an updated version of a classic tale, what is most attractive about the film is its eight millimeter quality. The frames and colors are grainy and tinted, which, intended or not, is one of the best qualities of the film. Of course, it may just be a default of the time and place in which the movie was created. Certainly not a hi-def, saturated color experience. But it lends an authentic and dated look to the film which parallels Romero’s approach to his paint red blood.
Another twist to the film that lends itself to Martin’s vampire tendency is that it is seen as more of a mental illness than any hocus pocus type family curse. Christina, Martin’s cousin tries to talk him into going to a hospital or seeing a doctor. Martin is stand-offish and quiet. Awkward at best. So the neighborhood sees him more as someone with a disorder, maybe something along the line of Asperger’s Syndrome. No one really questions it and one friendly neighbor even finds it endearing.
A thorough examination of the film would delve deep into the sexuality of the film, the history of the vampire and so on, but what is important about the film is that a legendary director of timeless zombie films has taken a stab at the origination of the zombie, according to some schools of thought, exposing the vampire: An undead and immortal being who can only be conquered under some extraneous effort.
At first the film grossed me out. I have no tolerance for these gory horror flicks that over use violence for the sake of entertainment, though there is a threshold to which I can tolerate these things and Martin keeps it just below that line.
by Steve Habrat
Before the unnecessary 1998 remake of Psycho, a film that certainly was not begging to be remade, the 90’s saw the altar of George Romero desecrated by make-up artist turned director Tom Savini’s utterly pointless carbon copy of Night of the Living Dead. To this day, every time I sit through it, I can’t help but ask “why?” To be fair, I suppose we are still asking that very question today, as we’ve seen every classic remade or re-envisioned. Astonishingly, Romero is listed as an executive producer here, further making this finely tuned machine even more enigmatic especially today due to his outward disapproval of the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. Tom Savini’s Night of the Living Dead slips up from its perfect execution, maddening tweaks to the story, and, well, the use of color. The film is vacant of any real terror and it seems touched by Hollywood, especially the electric guitar and synthesizer score that distractingly bellows over the arguing between the iconic characters. What made the 1968 Romero classic such a landmark was it’s rough around the edges presentation, never shying away from what it really was: an unapologetic horror film with attitude. Savini misunderstands that the film itself posses the anger and the characters were there simply to guide it along its path. Here, Savini makes every character angry, while the studio grabs the film by the hand and leads it along, leaving it’s furious independent sensibilities behind to be eaten by the make-up heavy undead.
Night of the Living Dead ’90 has no place in the era that it was made. It wasn’t a time that was gripped by panic, fear, violence, and uncertainty. Stripped off all its political and social relevance, there is no reason for the dead to walk other than for Hollywood to showcase their latest special effects. The storyline for Savini’s contribution is basically the same, a dysfunctional brother and sister, Johnnie (Played by Bill Moseley) and Barbara (Played by Patricia Tallman), take a road trip to visit their deceased mother’s grave. Upon arrival, several ghouls instantly attack them and the irritating Johnnie imitation bites the dust. Barbara frantically makes her escape to an remote farmhouse where she bumps into zombie killing juggernaut Ben (Played by Tony Todd), testy Harry Cooper (Played by Tom Towles), Harry’s cooperative wife Helen Cooper (Played by Mckee Anderson), and the young Tom (Played by William Butler), and his frizzy haired girlfriend Judy (Played by Katie Finneran). The bickering group attempts to board up and defend the farmhouse from the restless corpses who lurk outside. The group soon falls victim to their own unwillingness to work together, forcing them to make a desperate final effort to survive until morning.
About the only contribution this film makes to the annals of the horror genre is a profession approach to the source material versus what Romero, then a novice filmmaker, produced in 1968. Everything here is a notch more ornate, which makes the events seem preposterous and inane. Some of the zombies border on demonically possessed human beings much like what was found in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead. They wear cloudy eye contacts and have yellowed skin. Some have their stomachs sewn up while other animated corpses loose their garments due to the slits cut into the back of the clothing so they could be easily dressed. It looses the “they are us” echoes that resonated through the original. The film attempts to drive the “they are us” idea home, giving the line to Barbara who slips it in at climax. Romero’s zombies were never this intricate, making the ghouls assaults all the more unfathomable. What has happened to these individuals? These are our families, friends, neighbors, coworkers, etc. Here, they seem like filler background characters. They are the furthest things from “us”. The ghouls resemble Halloween decorations you toss out into your front yard.
If the fact that you are sitting through the remake of Night of the Living Dead is maddening enough, the acting will send you through the roof. No one in this film brushes a subpar performance, with characters that find themselves frenzied who shouldn’t be and characters making drastic turns in their personality. Barbara, who in the original film was sent to a state of shock and never fully returns, snaps out of her catatonic state and becomes a pistol packing sex symbol. It’s awkward. Ben is all melodramatics, shrieking to the heavens when he dispatches a contorted zombie heap. Why would he be kneeling out in the front yard shouting at the sky? You’re going to attract more zombies, you dumb ass. Ben also appears to be looking for a fight in this version. I preferred him as the calm and collected individual who pushed back only when he was pushed far enough. Helen Cooper remains largely the same given she is only a minor character and Harry is still his difficult self. He insists everyone stay in the cellar and refuses to help board up the windows. Judy and Tom, the confused youths caught in the middle of the warring pairs, act like dimwitted hillbillies. Judy is always blubbering yet somehow she pulls it together to drive the getaway truck to the gas pump on the property. Don’t get me started on the alteration made to how the truck is engulfed in flames. In 1968, it’s an accident. In 1990, it’s just plain stupidity.
Night of the Living Dead 90 is amusing for all of the references to the 1968 original. The alterations still make reference to the original film, the most obvious is the scene where Harry and Helen’s daughter Sarah (Played here by Heather Mazur but made famous by Kara Schon) rips her mothers throat out with her teeth opposed to dispatching her dear old mum with a cement trowel. As she eats at her mother’s neck, blood splatters across the cellar wall where a cement trowel hangs. It doesn’t help that Sarah resembles as large colonial doll done up like a vampire. It’s not nearly as traumatic as the original death scene. The film also relies on more gore to keep the horror fans glued to the action. There are more infected wounds on the zombies, more gunshots to the head that end with a shower of brains leaking down their foreheads, and charred bodies are munched on. The original only showed brief glimpses of the savagery, mostly leaving the truly vile stuff to the imagination. Savini, who was a photographer in Vitenam and did gore effects for Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead opts the sadism to be up close and personal.
This film is largely forgotten for a reason. I’d bet money on the fact that many do not know a remake of the Romero classic exists. This film lacks any attention-grabbing camera work, every shot remaining immobile. Romero may have been a new kid on the block in the filmmaking neighborhood, but he filled his work with artistic camerawork and some fairly bizarre Dutch tilts at inimitable times. Romero knew how to creep us out and make his film an atypical nightmare. There is none of that here and it’s as if Savini was reading from a “How To” book on filmmaking. It’s a simple wide shot, medium shot, close-up, repeat. He never takes a risk and the only brush with risk is the nod to Dawn of the Dead at the end, in which Barbara joins a merry gang of hillbillies hunting the ghouls and making a party out of it. The film is also sluggishly edited together, another departure from Romero’s classic. He applied frantic, pithy editing that bordered on visual nails on a chalkboard. It honestly made me squirm the first time I saw the original. It added another layer of intensity. This film wouldn’t know intensity if it bit it on the ass. Night of the Living Dead ‘90 is flat, artless, and minimal, banished to the murky depths of horror for good reason. Hopefully, it never rises up like on of its undead protagonists to see the light of day or the black of night again. Grade: D-
by Steve Habrat
In 2005, George Romero finished off his zombie saga with a bit of a whimper with Land of the Dead. It was good to see him back in the genre he created, but it felt like he became a victim to CGI magic tricks. The film was a little too epic for it’s own good and when news came that he was going to restart his Dead franchise with a smaller, independent movie called Diary of the Dead, I was pretty excited to see what he would come up with. It was announced shortly after the news broke, that the film would be shot cinema-vérité style, opting for hand held camera work by one of the films characters over the traditional style of filmmaking. It made sense to this fan because Night of the Living Dead seemed to have traces of cinema-vérité influence within it. It would be small, tight, and focus on a smaller group of people once again facing off against the undead. They were college film students instead of ordinary folk and they would be waiting it out in an RV rather than an isolated farmhouse. Romero furthermore stated that the film would be taking place the same exact time as Night of the Living Dead did. How could you not be intrigued? The master is returning to his roots!
Diary of the Dead concerns itself with our recent discovery of online media and social networking. The characters in the film hover around their glowing computer screens to get the news, much like the desperate survivors did with the television in Night. They are also interested in getting out into the action, filming the carnage for the world to see so everyone knows the truth. Every leader and newscaster seems to be promising that everything is under control while the terrified students discover nothing but unrest and violence stampeding through the countryside. Diary is without question the first Dead film that was truly a disappointment. There are decent moments within the film, but it strayed too much from what made the original series great—the zombies. There are barely any zombies in the film. Romero argued that it was supposed to be more low-key than his hoard heavy Night, Dawn, Day, and Land. No one seems to have told Romero that the smaller scale here was actually ineffective.
Jason Creed (Played by Joshua Close) is making a mummy horror film with fellow students and their brooding professor. When one of the students, Elliot (Played by Joe Dinicol) declares that the news is bring in reports of the recently deceased returning to life, the students pack up into an RV and head back to campus to scoop up Jason’s stone-cold girlfriend Debra (Played by Michelle Morgan), who has barricaded herself into her dorm room. The group sets out to find their families and, well, find a safe place to wait out the situation. As they journey further out, they realize that things may truly be worse than the news is saying. They then decided to fight their way towards the home of their wealthy buddy Ridley (Played by Phillip Riccio) who has been hiding out since the news broke.
The first problem that any seasoned Romero fan will notice while watching Diary of the Dead is the amateurish acting and writing that plagues every scene. The film is loaded with clunky dialogue that is directed at the audience in such a way that it borderlines on lecture. Most of the gabbing comes from Debra, who consistently demands that Jason put down the camera and help out when the few zombies that make their way into the film attack. He keeps whining that they have to record the truth. Romero keeps asking us if letting others suffer all for a good story is worth it. Furthermore, can we live with ourselves for behaving this way? The film doesn’t ask this question subtly and it’s about as obvious as a hoard of zombies trying to pound their way into your home. What happened to the wily director who slipped in satire quietly? The acting is also distracting, clearly coming from a bunch of elementary actors who have not refined their talent. Michelle Morgan is groan worthy and the snappy blonde bombshell Texan Tracy (Played by Amy Lalonde), who always interjects in a cockamamie southern drawl “Don’t mess with Texas!” is downright embarrassing. I honestly couldn’t bring myself to like any of the characters that Romero puts at the center of the action. Jason was an okay character, but he can’t even hold a candle to the relatively unexciting Riley in Land of the Dead. Nerdy Elliot tries his damndest, but he is mostly reduced to hysterics.
Diary of the Dead does offer its fair share of promising set ups. A siege on Ridley’s mansion at the end that is filmed by surveillance cameras set up around the house is efficient. It shows glimmers of Night of the Living Dead and you won’t be able to help yourself to give a geeky fist pump for the nod. It will distract you from asking the question What does Ridley’s father do to earn his money and why do they NEED surveillance? It will also distract you from asking when they found the time to get the footage from the said cameras. There is, after all, a massive wave of zombies lurking outside. I should also mention the humorous run in with a deaf Amish man named Samuel. While holding up with Samuel and contemplating what to do next, the zombies make their move and the students have to make a quick departure. The way the sequence plays out is both disappointingly campy and strangely evocative of Night. The most disgraceful part of the film is the film professor Alexander Maxwell (Played by Scott Wentworth), who prefers a bow and arrow to a firearm. Romero seems to have forgotten what made Night of the Living Dead so unforgettable. Everything seemed real. The characters used what was around them and never pulled out a weapon as ludicrous as a bow and arrow. Could you imagine Ben using a rocket launcher to defend the farmhouse? The fact that this weapon is used in the film is a bit of an outrage.
I find myself troubled about Romero’s restart of his beloved franchise. Diary of the Dead is an interesting commentary of our obsession with social media and the deceiving nature of the news. Yet Romero seems out of his element here and a bit rushed. The Dead series always had long pauses between their releases. It was ten years between Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. It would be another six years until Romero would unchain Day of the Dead. Twenty long years filled the gap between Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead. Three years had passed since Land of the Dead played in mainstream theaters. Diary of the Dead did not have this luxury and found a zombified life on DVD and Blu-ray. Perhaps the coolest aspect of Diary is the cameos from Romero’s famous buddies, all who lend their voices to newscasters. Keep an ear out for Quentin Tarantino, Guillermo del Toro, Stephen King, Wes Craven, Tom Savini, and Simon Pegg. Diary is an underwhelming effort from a man who usually leaves us astonished. Diary of the Dead only nips the viewer. It never takes a bloody bite out of us. Grade: C+