George Romero’s Diary of the Dead

After watching this movie this evening, I knew I had to write something about it. Fifteen minutes into it, my head was churning, the way a good piece literature gets it going. I love work that challenges me, that makes me think, that forces me to interact with it.

And you’re going? Wait. This is a zombie movie, right?

Yeah. Well. My outspoken adoration for horror movies notwithstanding, this is still a pretty intense flick. You should watch it. Yeah, you. Even if you don’t like zombie movies. Watch it. Because I think this movie does everything that a zombie movie can do, and it does it really fucking well. And…I think you, we all, need to think about what George Romero is saying.

I hardly believe I’m typing this. I’m an afficionado of Romero’s films, from Night of the Living Dead to Land of the Dead, and this is only because zombie films are post-apocalyptic films and I’m a huge fan of post-apocalyptic stuff, since it does such excellent stuff for characters. Generally, I’m rolling my eyes at whatever heavy-handed, poorly executed metaphor Romero’s trying to make for the zombies. I’ve thrown popcorn at the screen and yelled, “Come on, Georgie, are you really trying to make me believe zombies are the underclass? Grow a brain, this connection doesn’t work on eighty-five different levels!!” But I watch them anyway, because, I figure, even if Romero ain’t got anything that makes sense to say, he’s got something to say, and that’s rare in horror. Hell, it’s downright unheard of, except for maybe Wes Craven and (sometimes) Stephen King.

But this movie…I hadn’t watched it yet, because I had mistakenly thought it was a documentary about making the four zombie films Romero had made. I figured I’d get to it eventually, but I wasn’t really interested in a two-hour explanation about how they made the zombie makeup and how much it sucked not to be able to film in Pittsburgh anymore. Actually, it’s part of what is rapidly becoming a sub-genre of horror films–the mockumentary horror film, like Cloverfield or The Blair Witch Project. Discovering its subgenre didn’t make me much more excited about watching it. These kinds of films can get a little clumsy. It’s really freaking difficult to come up with a reason for someone to film a story when they’re in fear of their lives. Knowing Romero’s experience with metaphors, I figured he’d come off just as ham-handed.

But…I watched it anyway. I was bored. And I discovered that this is the absolute perfect genre for George Romero. Because the film has a built in aspect of being outside itself, it allows him to comment on what’s going on clearly, without trying to hide not-so-subtle clues. He can just come right out and say what he’s been saying for the past five decades with these zombie films. And…not because I wasn’t listening, I never got it before. Not really.

In every Romero zombie film, one character looks at the zombies and says, “They’re us.” More popcorn throwing generally ensued from me, as I catcalled, “What do mean, Georgie? You saying we eat human flesh? Zombie movies are supposed be fun, dammit!”

I generally took this as a statement that we should feel sorry for the zombies. They were just like us. They were people. Poor, poor zombies. And, I thought, “Well, no, we shouldn’t feel sorry for the zombies. They’re trying to kill us. We should shoot them in the head.”

But. Damn. And I feel so stupid now, for not understanding, and for not getting what he was saying. Yes–we’re the people shooting other people in the head. And yes–we’re the people stalking other people to eat their flesh. We’re both. We hunt and hurt each other and we defend ourselves against that hunting and hurting and then eventually it becomes difficult to see who’s hunting and who’s defending, because there’s just so much violence. So much pain.

What’s Romero’s point? Why is he still making zombie movies? He’s trying to tell us that we’re eating ourselves alive.

Our society. Our nature. Just. Us. They’re us.

This movie is the only zombie movie I’ve ever seen that almost made me cry. It’s the only zombie movie I’ve seen that managed to satisfy both my appetite for thrills, gore, and humor, and also leave me feeling about as headfucked as I did after seeing Requiem for a Dream.

Good for Georgie. What’s good about a mockumentary is that it makes it seem more real. And this seemed real. He did…hammer his message over my head. In an extraordinarily heavy-handed way. But he did a good job, I think, and I won’t fault him for that.

I also thought it was absolutely brilliant that he took the fact that the movie was a mockumentary and twisted that fact to his purpose. There’s a centralized theme about the filtering of reality through lenses and about the ability of everyone to film things now and to present their films to the world. Romero seems to believe that this distorts the truth, makes it difficult to find in a sea of voices. He slams the media (no surprise there), but he doesn’t triumph the independent filmmaker either. In the end, it seems–and it’s almost like he’s trying to work this out himself–that there really is no difference between the media and the student who is filming the carnage around him frantically. It’s almost as if the responsibility to document destroys something human within us. It does distort the truth. Make it less real. Or so Romero seems to be saying. It’s an utterly appropriate message for a film of this kind and it has, in my mind, almost elevated the subgenre to something that can be mind-blowing. I’m impressed.

I don’t know if it takes age to realize that real horror is, well, really horrific, or if Romero just never had the proper tools to get his message across. I don’t even know if anyone’s quite comfortable enough with a zombie movie being smart enough to tackle tough issues for this movie to really even get through to much of anyone. Maybe that’s not important. But it gives me hope for my chosen genre. Good horror is good at getting under people’s skin and exposing them for what they are. This is good horror.

I realize I haven’t spent much time talking about what actually happened in the movie, but I think I’ll leave its story and its secrets to the screen. Talking about them too much might ruin the magic.