FINAL GIRL explores the slasher flicks of the '70s and '80s...and all the other horror movies I feel like talking about, too. This is life on the EDGE, so beware yon spoilers!

Feb 8, 2008

The Blair Zombie Project

I saw Diary of the Dead last night, and now I'm gonna talk about it. I'm sure I'll be giving away lots of spoilers (which, quite frankly, I always do here at FG) so if'n that ain't your bag, turn away now like a little baby. Go on! Git!

Side note: I like the idea of The Blair Zombie Project, and I'd like to see the franchise expand even further, to wit: The Blair Dracula Project, The Blair Lepus Project, The Blair Blob Project.

Now then. Any of you who are my MySpace fake friends (and why aren't you if you aren't? MySpace is totally hip and happening and so very now amongst the kids and 'hackers', and I know this because Diary of the Dead told me so!) who happened to read my blog over there know that the DotD trailer didn't particularly get me all a-touchin' mahself with anticipation. There were plenty of you who were excited about it, though, and sometimes that can be infectious. Before the movie last night, I was ready. Romero is calling DotD "...a whole new beginning for the dead". I was all "Zombies. Romero. Independently financed. Free screening. Yessssss." And then...

...I kind of disliked it. Scratch that- I really disliked it. Diary of the Dead didn't work on any level for me, and that really bums me out. I adore Romero, and even though I don't always adore his films, he's made some of my absolute favorite horror movies. Hell, I even liked Land of the Dead when I saw it in the theatre...though not so much when I watched the DVD at home a few months later. So what happened with Diary that left me feeling like a crusty old woman, all bitter and dead inside? Unfortunately...everything.

Photo by: Steve Wilkie/The Weinstein Company, 2008.

A group college kids are off in the woods filming a no-budget mummy movie when they hear reports on the radio about a few dead people returning to life and making with the chomp-chomp on the living. The kids are unsure what to think, but they decide to stop filming and head home. They pile into a Winnebago and have various wacky and gross zombie-laden adventures all caught on camera by mummy movie director Jason (Josh Close), who can't put down the camera because he is the voice of truth!

I'm not one to nitpick a film, really I'm not. Unless there's something glaringly obvious that doesn't gel (like, "Wait, didn't his head just get cut off? How is he walking around?"), I'm a pretty forgiving movie-watcher. After Diary of the Dead, though, I found myself going "Well, what about this? And that? And why did that happen?" because if you look at the film on anything deeper than a "zombie eat people! me like!" level, it all falls apart.

I know that The Blair Witch Project has its detractors and it always has. No matter how you feel about the content of that film and whether or not it scared you, there's no denying that the movie felt real...basically, because it was. Directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez handed lo-fi cameras over to Heather Donahue, Josh Leonard, and Mike Williams and the result was as verite as verite can get. Though Diary purports to be shot in the same way (every shot in the film is accounted for and explained away: it's this camera, it's that security camera, I found it on YouTube) (yes, YouTube. And MySpace. And Panasonic. I guess the references are supposed to make it feel real?), it's too slick to ever feel authentic. Romero is still very much in charge and the man has been making movies for 40+'s gonna look professional. The characters talk about editing, talk about their shots, blah blah blah, but it all feels like a conceit.

It doesn't help, either, that the acting was dreadful. Part of this, I think, is a result of the script: a lot of the dialogue felt completely unnatural and the characters were all unlikable. Seriously. I wanted them all to die, right across the board- especially the "director", Jason. Despite the fact that the world was falling apart around them, despite the fact that the dead were returning to life and killing the living, despite the fact that they had to, at times, kill loved ones who had 'turned', no one was emotionally affected by anything for more than a few seconds. The girl who had to shoot her undead boyfriend was all "Don't mess with Texas y'all! Can I have this lipgloss?" an hour later. The girl who was attacked by her own undead family brushed it off with little more than a "Phew! Okay, where to now?".

Diary of the Dead takes place over a 3-4 day period at the very beginning of the zombie outbreak. Romero makes sure we know the film is jam-packed with Katrina and 9-11 symbolism, but none of the reality of those terrifying situations, none of the confusion and fear and urgency of those events comes across on screen. The world has fallen apart so very much and so very quickly that a hospital is completely empty a few hours after the first zombie attack? That's a frightening prospect, if unbelievable, but our plucky filmmakers encounter little more than a few zombies here and a few zombies there as they make their way across Pennsylvania. The real footage spliced in- of car crashes, of Katrina aftermath, of riots in some vague Middle Eastern venue- feel completely out of place and unnecessary. They don't add to a sense of "the world is fucked" because the actual goings-on in the film don't add to a sense of "the world is fucked". Jason's "the government is lying to us and holding out on us and I have to keep filming because I am the voice of truth!" reasoning just doesn't...well, it doesn't ring true when the zombie outbreak is 4 hours old and he's one of a group of privileged college kids traipsing across Pennsylvanian back roads in a nice camper with no sense of imminent danger. Had the perspective been that of a poor, inner-city family with no alternatives and no way to escape the danger, then Romero might have been on to something.

Photo by: Steve Wilkie/The Weinstein Company, 2008.

Everyone likes to talk about how rife with symbolism Romero's zombie pictures are, yes? I suppose they are. Night of the Living Dead can be seen as a statement about race relations, but according to Romero himself that was never the intent: Duane Jones was cast because he was the best actor who read for the part of Ben, not because of his skin color. Thanks to its shopping mall setting, Dawn of the Dead is a parable about consumerism, but let's face it- the symbolism really stops at "zombies in a mall". And that's fine. The audience can glean whatever meaning they want from Romero's early zombie films, interpreting the night away. The key is, Romero left it up to the audience. Whether his messages were intentional or not, he got them across with a light touch. In Land of the Dead and, to a much greater extent, Diary of the Dead, the audience is absolutely fucking bludgeoned to (un)death with symbolism and meaning and metaphor. The photo montage at the end of Night of the Living Dead, where human bodies are tossed into fire like so much trash, is disturbing, haunting, and silent. Here, we're literally asked "if we're worth saving". And please, don't get me started on this bit:

"It used to be us vs. us. Now, it's us vs. them. But they are us."

Obviously, that should read:

"It used to be us vs. us. Now, it's us vs. them. But they are us. Which is us vs. us. Gah! Never mind. I don't know what I'm talking about."

Regardless of how...well, how silly the line is to begin with, I have the same problem with it that I had in Tom Savini's NotLD remake: if you show me that humans are no 'better' than the very monsters we're fighting, I'll dig it. If you just say it, laying it all on the table with a big fat proclamation and little else to reinforce it, I'm gonna sigh. Are people so stupid that they need everything spelled out for them? I certainly hope not, but maybe I'm overestimating things.

The biggest offense of all, in my opinion, is that Diary of the Dead comes up short even on its most basic level as a horror film. Yeah, there are a few jump scares. Yeah, there are some cool shots. But there was never really any tension, never any urgency, never any creepiness or real sense of danger. These kids get a handle on the situation pretty quickly and have no problem dispatching the undead in a variety of fashions, even their loved ones. No one is particularly bothered by anything, and no one is ever grossed out. Why is no one horrified or disturbed when a head gets blown off right in front of them and they end up covered in viscera? I'm not saying it needs to occur throughout the entire film, but one "That's disgusting" can go a long way. I can't even deal with a squished bug, never mind seeing someone's guts spill out onto the floor (yes, the infamous guts-to-the-floor shot from Day of the Dead is pretty much recreated far lesser shock effect). Everyone is blase about everything, which just ain't right.

I miss Tom Savini. Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of Greg Nicotero (DotD's Special Make-Up Effects Producer) as well, but the effects are almost all computer-generated now. I'd rather sacrifice a wicked cool shot to have some organic FX...and I'm sorry, but Savini produced plenty of wicked cool shots with karo syrup and latex.

It all comes down to good idea, exceedingly poor execution. It hurts me to say so, but I wish I had more thumbs so I could give Diary of the Dead more thumbs down. The more I think about it, the less I like I'm just going to stop thinking about it.

Here's hoping that the other "keep the camera rolling" zombie movie, [REC], gets it right. Now that's a trailer that's got me all a-touchin' mahself with anticipation!


Jason Adams said...

I couldn't agree with you more, Stacie. I saw it Wednesday night and Romero was at my screening and was so adorable at the Q&A afterwards that I haven't been able to really type anything up on it because I love the dear man so very much... but yes, yes to you on every count.

Somebody at the Q&A asked him about all the use of CG and he said it basically came down to a time thing - that it's just so easy and gets your shooting done so much faster if you can fix it all up in post, and he seemed to miss the hands-on gore stuff but at the same time was, unsurprisingly, totally practical on how much time it saved him and how much faster he could get the film shot by just relying on the CG stuff.

That was part of what made me, like, mentally incapable of really writing anything on the film, was that he seemed totally aware of its flaws and limitations. He laughed about how sometimes he just couldn't resist an out-of-place goof or being corny. Which yes George, that's fine, endearing even, but then he went on to actually say the phrase "the characters don't matter" when asked about what comes first, his theme or his story (he answered theme), and I was like, yeah, obviously the characters didn't matter here, george, because you just filled the screen with a bunch of douchebags.

Sigh. I did really like the final shot (if only it'd been sans ANNOYING voiceover) and the zombie getting her eyeballs blown out with the defib machine rocked. So there was that.

Anonymous said...

Man, that's a hilarious, well-written review. I got nothin' to add.

RJ said...

I knew this was doomed from the moment the cast was announced. The beauty of those original movies was, whether financially driven or not, the cast looked like real people. They could be your nieghbours. Even in the Dawn of the Dead remake, they cast a lot of 'that guy's and 'oh . . . I saw her on law and order's, if you know what i mean. Character actors that weren't movie star glamorous. This looked like a bunch of models.

Stacie Ponder said...

Thanks for filling me in, JA. I can only imagine how much time CGI saves, but it looks lame. LAME! If it's all pixels, I just...don't usually care.

And sacrificing characters for a message is about the worst idea I've EVER heard. Didn't he learn anything from his own movies? Which was more effective, Night or Land? Dammit George!

There were a couple of moments here and there that were okay...the eyeballs you mentioned, for example. By and large, though, I really REALLY disliked this film. And that sucks! I'm a Romero fan...but I guess that doesn't translate to loving everything.

Rural, I was hopeful because, with the exception of Shawn Roberts, I didn't recognize any names on the cast list. After the Dennis Hopperization of Land, I was looking forward to Romero getting back to his roots, so to speak. Unfortuantely, "unknown actor" certainly doesn't mean "good actor". Sure, they were all "pretty", but beyond that, they all stunk stunk STUNK.

Jason Adams said...

Oh, I forgot, I liked Samuel the Deaf Amish guy. Even though even that was handled kind of clunkily. But he still kinda kicked ass all the same. I wanted HIS movie.

Some of the CG was just BAD too - like a couple of those gunshots to the head were TERRIBLE, they looked like somebody drew a wound in with a red sharpie.

kindertrauma said...

REC truly is amazing. Even though I had no idea what anyone was saying because i do not speak spanish, it still freaked the hell out of me. Screams translate into any language and all you really need to understand is ZOMBIE=YIKES to get the movie. The imagery, especial toward the end of the film is unsettling and disturbing in a way that has been neglected in zombie movies of late. For example in RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION you know how all the zombies are all uniform, mostly white tough guys. What was up with that? I need zombies of all walks of life, oldsters, kids, all sizes and shapes...that's what works for me. REC just has those normal folks gone zombo thing that I think is just so much creepier then the video game looking dudes that are now the norm.

Craig Blamer said...


Oh well, going in with a lowered bar is preferable to going in with high hopes that are to be cruelly dashed.

Joe Reid said...

I don't so much mind that everyone's a hottie; it's about college kids, and college kids these days are all disgustingly attractive and life's not fair.

Anyway, awesome review and it hits on all the parts of this movie (and Land) that I didn't like. And I'm glad to see JA get a safe place to express his dislike as well.

L. Rob Hubb said...


Well, at least I hope George got a good payday. Maybe this is his kiss-off to zombie movies?

Anonymous said...

Well, that makes it you and Devin Faraci vs. everyone else on the internet, and yet I know deep down that you two're right.

I actually like "Land" quite a bit (only because I can mentally wall it off from the trilogy), but I stopped expecting greatness from Romero when he said he was keen to remake The Thing with CGI. And the way he was talking up Diary, I could tell he let the subtext become the text, which is just shitty storytelling.

Oh well. Worth noting that he staved off the late-period suckfest a lot longer than most of the genre icons. To wit: Showtime's Masters of Horror series.

Anonymous said...

Hey, there's been some pretty good stuff on Masters of Horror. Not John Carpenter's stuff, but some good episodes.

Anonymous said...

Also, [REC] looks kinda cool. If only my Spanish didn't suck so much, I could understand more of the trailer. Still, those look like some seriously fast zombies.

Joseph Emmerth said...

You guys missed the funniest part of Stacie's post:

"I'm not one to nitpick a film, really I'm not."


It's okay, we still love you:)

Matt said...

I felt the exact way about Land of the Dead- loved it in the theatre, couldn't finish it at home. Has Dennis Hopper been in a good horror movie or just insanely bad sequels? I guess Water World is pretty terrifying.

Anonymous said...

That's too bad you didn't like it Stacie. I caught it at the Toronto Film Festival last year and everyone really seemed to enjoy themselves. Oh well. I can affirm your hopes about REC though. I saw it recently and it is a far superior film (one of my faves from '07 actually).

Anonymous said...

REC is not a zombie movie strictly... But anyway, is a great terror film. Hope you guys enjoy it and see the spanish one, not the Hollywood´s remake!

Anonymous said...

*sigh* a bad review of a Romero movie has the genre sunk that far :(

No comment on the movie as it hasn't opened Downunder and probably wont. But to wit the stating the obvious. That's all down to the post MTV mall generation who don't listen to dialog, have no idea what metaphor is, and probably search for irony in a hardware store. Yes I'm blaming U.S teens who have the attention span of a radish. Throw in a "gnarly death" every five minutes and they will be happy, as long as there's a big neon signpost blazing away with what they should take from the current scene.

Maybe Zack Synder will ride in on a white horse and save us all ;)

Rey Nova said...

I didn´t see it yet, but i think it´s a "must see", considering your comments.