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Knight at the Movies: Diary of the Dead, Film Notes
by Richard Knight, Jr.
2008-02-13

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Forty years after Night of the Living Dead, George A. Romero is once again raising the dead. His latest foray into zombie territory—his fifth—is called Diary of the Dead and, like The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, it's filmed by a character with a camcorder. This new type of horror film ( take mental terror and add physical discomfort, thanks to the camera jiggling ) worked to great effect for those two and works here as well. The immediacy of the camcorder, with its pretense of reality, and the low-budget look it provides is a particularly effective device for Romero, a filmmaker who has never really moved away from his scrappy beginnings. And, unlike his multiple imitators, Romero once again proves that, when it comes to grisly zombie pictures, he's the master.

Romero's story follows a group of college film students who are caught up in the ongoing mass chaos that ensues when the dead start to rise up and feast on the living. As the movie begins, they are shooting a mummy picture out in the woods in rural Pittsburgh when news reports of the zombie attacks interrupt them. The director of the group decides to keep shooting and the resulting film, The Death of Death, has been finished as a tribute to the now-dead filmmaker. The plot follows the cast as they race around in a Winnebago trying to outrun the carnage and mayhem, and there are side trips to a dormitory, an emergency room and a McMansion, the home of one of the characters.

Throughout, Romero ( who again penned the script ) finds the right balance of grisly visuals and black humor, and the 90-minute film is well-paced and offers plenty of suspense, familiar though it may be. ( A lurching zombie approaching in the background toward an unsuspecting victim never fails to elicit squeals. ) As usual, Romero finds more audacious ways to kill a zombie than any of his imitators—a man pulls off the nose of a zombie dressed as a clown at a children's birthday party; another gets taken out by electric paddles; one gets acid to the head, conveniently melting his brains on camera, etc. A brief, alternately hilarious/gross sequence with an Amish farmer sequence is a highlight.

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Like Romero's Land of the Dead and Dawn of the Dead, he adds metaphor to the gore ( though the carnage isn't anything close to the torture porn of the Saw and Hostel series ) . Though Romero's commentary on the zombie-like populace, forever texting on their cell phones and recording life rather than partaking in it is certainly valid he goes overboard with the metaphor. And after 40 years of zombie pictures, Romero's film again doesn't answer the question that always comes to mind: Has everyone ever done the math? I mean, would the zombies really rise up so quickly the living wouldn't have a chance to fight back? These movies never really explain how things would fall apart so quickly ( though the recent I Am Legend took a pretty good stab at it ) .

I also wish that Romero had written a group of characters that didn't include the standard zombie deniers. It would have been much more interesting at this late date to see a smart little movie with characters who believe from the get-go in the mortal dangers of the zombies and who don't take chances and are really smart but still get zombified anyway—at least most of them. Memo to George A. Romero: Maybe try this out on the next go-round.

Film Notes:

—DVD release of note: Midnight Express, the horrific true story of an average U.S. resident imprisoned in Turkey for drug possession for years and the movie that made actor Brad Davis a star, is out in a 30th-anniversary edition from Sony Pictures. The film, well-acted by Davis, John Hurt and an international cast, is filled with scenes of brutality ( including the infamous tongue-biting scene ) and the homoerotic shower sequence in which Davis' character coyly turns down an offer of sex from his best friend ( a change from the book ) . The disc is loaded with plenty of new special features. Davis, who was bisexual, went on to star as a gay sailor in the queer indie classic Querelle and sadly succumbed to AIDS in 1991.

—In conjunction with the Art Institute's ongoing Edward Hopper exhibit, The Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, is presenting a continuing film series titled The Roots of Noir. One of the earliest examples of the genre ( and one of the best ) is the Humphrey Bogart-Mary Astor classic The Maltese Falcon, which plays Feb. 16 ( at 5 p.m. ) and Feb. 17 ( at 3 p.m. ) . www.siskelfilmcenter.com

—Former talk show host and John Waters discovery Ricki Lake will appear at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport, Feb. 16 and 17 at 2 p.m. to promote the documentary The Business of Being Born, which examines how U.S. women give birth. Lake executive-produced ( and gives birth on camera in the film ) . The film's director, Abby Epstein, will also be in attendance. The movie also plays Feb. 15 and 18. www.musicboxtheatre.com

—MamSir Productions, Moving Train Media and Actor Slash Model Present Threat Level: An Evening of Queer Shorts Wed., Feb. 20, 7:30 p.m. at Elegant Mr. Gallery, 1355 N. Milwaukee, 3rd Floor. Several of the filmmakers will be in attendance and organizers offer an additional inducement to attend: The first 10 people that dare to wear shorts ( no pants/tights/thermals ) will get to sit in the VIP section. Admission is $5-10.

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitytimes.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter Web site, where there is also ordering information on my new book of collected film reviews, Knight at the Movies 2004-2006.

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