Late at night, alone in the woods, a group of film students at work on a no-budget horror film called The Death of Death are interrupted by — the death of death. Reports of animated corpses feeding on human flesh come over the radio and are met with nervous skepticism; back at the dorms, Web sites and television confirm the new reality. As they flee the zombie menace, fanning through the Pennsylvania suburbs, the young hero filmmakers of George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead remark in passing (run!) that God has abruptly changed the rules and note how strangely prepared they are to play along.
Diary of the Dead, the fierce and resourceful new film from George Romero, plays a funny game with the classic zombie film — which is to say with Romero's own legendary oeuvre. Told through the shifting perspective of various manned and automated video platforms (first-person video diary, surveillance cameras, online streaming video, cell phones), shot over a 23-day period in and around Toronto, using a small crew, locally recruited actors, and digital video cameras, the independently produced feature finds Romero returning to the DIY ethos of his landmark 1968 debut, Night of the Living Dead.
"I wanted to go back to being completely independent," Romero says of his rough-and-tumble experiment, which he sold to the Weinstein Company last week. "I wrote the treatment before [Universal's 2005] Land of the Dead, but it didn't have much focus at all. It was just an idea of how we could do a zombie film inexpensive again. But from the beginning, I knew I wanted to go back to the 'first night,' have it done with film students, and do all subjective camera."
Diary was inspired, Romero explains, by a desire to address not the terrors of modern life, but the relentless impulse to record them. "Everything's so fucked," runs the key line of dialogue, "there's nothing left to do but record it."
I visited the filmmaker at his riverfront apartment in Toronto a few days after the Midnight Madness premiere of Diary at the Toronto International Film Festival, a raucous affair attended by hundreds of fans (T-shirt: "Romeo for President"), plus 50 volunteer zombies and one living legend, Italian horror master Dario Argento. Asked if he'd seen his old friend's lunatic new movie, Mother of Tears, Romero admits to not being much of a moviegoer these days; he digs Shaun of the Dead but hasn't seen either 28 Days Later or 28 Weeks Later Later. ("I'd rather sit on the couch all day and watch Turner Classic Movies.") But in this case, he was detained by overzealous agents at a "Podunk border crossing," resulting in one of America's most celebrated genre filmmakers stuck in a three-day ordeal trying to re-enter Canada.
You'd think they'd be happy to welcome the guy who imagined, in Land of the Dead, a United States so rotted by capitalism that survivors of the proletariat zombie uprising exit the movie for the green pastures of Canada. "Oh, I'll never live that down," Romero chuckles. Acknowledging the importance of satire to his vision, he's modest about his allegorical ambitions. "When I made [1978's] Dawn of the Dead, I felt I was being way too precious, that I was trying too hard and that I'd get caught. The whole thing of the shopping mall, man, it's just a pie in the face! Everyone talks about this 'underlying theme' — it's not underlying anything!
"I don't try to answer any questions or preach," Romero continues. "My personality and my opinions come through in the satire of the films, but I think of them as a snapshot of the time. I have this device, or conceit, where something happens in the world and I can say, 'Ooo, I'll talk about that — and I can throw zombies in it! And get it made!' You know," he says, laughing, "it's kind of my ticket to ride."
Having started at Night, passed on to Dawn, emerged in the Day of the Dead, then totalized his critique of American society in the aptly named Land, Romero has now gone to the only place left: the virtual world of mass media. Diary's basic flight-and-fight narrative, closely scripted before shooting, is told through the video diary and YouTube uploads of the student director, around which Romero collages various news reports, voiceovers, and video-audio inserts. Comparisons with The Blair Witch Project are inevitable, but Romero's project is closer — uncannily close — to another Toronto fest film: Redacted, Brian De Palma's misguided multimedia cri de coeur over the horror show in Iraq.
No contemporary crisis is directly addressed in Diary, making it all the more tempting to point its allegorical energies at specific targets of your choice. "Some of it's from Katrina," Romero reveals of his images. "And the radio they're listening to in the hospital was taken directly from 9/11 stuff — except [special-effects legend Tom] Savini's voice in there saying, 'Get Õem in the head!'
"You see all this shit happening that's just ridiculous, whether it's the war or the economy of housing. It seems like, 'Christ, the sky is falling!'" Romero says. "And I think there is a tendency with young people to think, Why get involved? You can't fix this mess — this stuff can just drive you crazy. It can really breed paranoia. I once had an idea for a script about a guy who just sits biting his fingernails watching the news," he says, laughing. "Like a Warhol thing."
As always, Romero leavens that despair with humor (Diary features an instant classic bit about a deaf, dynamite-chucking Amish zombie killer named Samuel), playfulness, and unshakable good nature. "You have to find a balance in life to deal with it all," he says, "and I feel pretty balanced." By working through anxieties with filmmaking? "Oh, no. My stuff just talks about what's happening now. It's not a release. I try to use satire and humor to lighten the load a little bit. But no, no, no — I find balance in my cat!"