Deadbeat

Diary of the Dead
Directed by George A. Romero
The Weinstein Company, 2007

Zombies get hit on YouTube. It seems only a matter of fact that modern horror cinema's most enduring revenants would claim exposure on the most recursive of new media. Had George Romero actually decided to pursue his original idea of only broadcasting Diary of the Dead on the Web, the result might have unfolded less disappointingly.

After three brilliant installments, Romero's zombie saga had run its allegorical course by the end of the Reagan era, so he let the ghouls fester dormant for two decades before intuiting that the show had to go on. Post-9/11, Land of the Dead's relatively big budget, grand scale and digitally enhanced stiffs made for little more than a tired update, while its awkward treatment of race and class proved oddly prophetic after Katrina hit. Diary recaptures the low-tech cred and regional sensibility of the earlier films, yet forfeits any engagement with social or economic concerns in favor of a stab at pervasive information technology and a putative youth culture. Will the dead rise if Obama loses?

The movie we are offered is a project initiated by college film major Jason Creed (Josh Close) and, after he falls victim to the flesh-eaters, completed by his girlfriend Debra (Michelle Morgan), whose earnest point of view guides us through the story. All mediated imagery, Diary constitutes a testimonial of footage shot and gleaned during their fugitive journey across the Pennsylvania countryside with a group of fellow students. "The mainstream had vanished," Debra tells us in retrospective voice-over, "with their power and money; now it was just us - bloggers, hackers, kids." For the first time, Romero adapts his inspired formula to the teen horror market's dialectics of naive, truth-seeking gravitas and bland reflexivity.

Grown-up characters appear as walking clich├ęs, a gallery of stereotypes geared to embody various kinds of otherness: Andrew the gleeful alcoholic British film professor (Scott Wentworth), Samuel the helpful deaf-mute Amish farmer (R. D. Reid), the willful front man of a proud black paramilitary outfit (Martin Roach)... Whether slated to impart banal 'wisdom' or comic relief, these ciphers mainly serve to embody outdated values and impoverished means, in contrast to the young ones' bourgeois savvy and privilege. (Andrew prefers bow and arrow over the kids' guns as weapon of choice, while Samuel's ramshackle shed and the black warriors' warehouse retreat are not up to speed with the panic room-outfitted mansion where one of the students hosts his buddies' last stand.) Such discrepancies reveal that the students and the supposedly vanished mainstream are one and the same.

(Warning: Spoiler)

The last act demonstrates that Romero has not lost his feel for suburban domestic space, but overall his biting sense of humor and political acumen seem to have given way to a dubious play for knee-jerk laughs and clueless platitudes. By the time Diary ends on images of lynching that echo the indelible finale of Night of the Living Dead, he is just taking one more cheap shot.

Diary of the Dead is currently playing in theaters.