The zombies are just cleaning up

Times Staff Writer

In "George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead," the director's most recent and least successful vision of the zombie apocalypse, a group of film students dodges Pennsylvania's undead in a tricked-out Winnebago while recording every second of the catastrophe for posterity. (They're not above reenacting the good bits for the camera when necessary, either.)

Of course, the joke is that posterity is pretty much toast. The worldwide dead are reanimating as flesh-eating ghouls with extremely short attention spans. Not that this really matters in the media scheme of things. They wouldn't care about the students' films if they were still alive, either. They'd be too busy shooting video or posting to blogs.

Romero is the undisputed master of the zombie metaphor, his four previous zombie sagas having captured all that is terrifying and morbidly funny about generational upheavals in American society. But they have also spawned a rich and fruitful genre, which includes some movies that have beaten this one to the punch. The idea that the chronicler of the atrocity is implicated in it by virtue of his passivity has been amply explored in movies from "Man Bites Dog" to "The Blair Witch Project" to Brian de Palma's recent "Redacted," to name just three.

"Diary of the Dead" opens with what we're told is a piece of unedited local news footage capturing the first known instance of the dead coming back to life and attacking the living. Uploaded to YouTube by a news cameraman who wants "the truth to be known," the video is one of many collected by Jason Creed (Joshua Close), a young film student at the University of Pittsburgh. Jason, his classmates and his alcoholic professor, Maxwell (Scott Wentworth), are deep in the woods making a no-budget mummy movie ("with an underlying thread of social satire," quips Maxwell) when news of the crisis breaks out. Despite reports of total chaos (Romero uses footage from Hurricane Katrina depicting looting and general pandemonium), Jason remains skeptical, yet decides to devote himself to making a verite docu-drama titled "The Death of Death."

Abandoning their project in the woods, the kids break into two camps. Rich Ridley (Philip Riccio) takes off for his family compound with the wigged-out Francine (Megan Park), while the others board the Winnebago and head for the dorm to pick up Jason's girlfriend, Deb (Michelle Morgan), who happens to be the last woman there. Jason, Deb, Maxwell, Tony (Shawn Roberts), Mary (Tatiana Maslany), Tracy (Amy Lalonde) and Eliot (Joe Dinicol) hit the road. The idea is to drop everyone off at home, but these plans are derailed.

They rush to a hospital, but the place is empty, a fact that doesn't dawn on them nearly as quickly as it does on the audience. In fact, even when faced with undead, crispy-fried state troopers, disemboweled orderlies, face-eating doctors and nurses, these kids seem oddly remote and disassociated from the events taking place around them. I'd be inclined to conclude that it's their thoroughly mediated lives that make them incapable of actually experiencing anything first hand, if the acting weren't so uniformly flat and disaffected.

Romero's big point, which he drives home rather relentlessly, is that the audience has cannibalized itself long before the undead come along to chomp on one another's entrails. "There are 200 million video cameras in people's hands worldwide," one of the characters says, comparing the proliferation of news and media outlets, blogs and vlogs, etc., with the impulse to stop and gawk at accidents. "We don't stop to help, we stop to look." The explosion of voices and information has only made the truth harder to locate.

Good point, but the movie suffers from the same malaise Romero diagnoses in society. It's just too mediated to be scary, despite its zeal for gore. You can't feel the characters' fear, and they don't seem to feel it either. Politically inert and distanced from their own drama by self-produced dramatizations, they respond to societal breakdown by running home to Mom and Dad. Mom and Dad can't do anything for them, of course. And maybe that's the scariest thing about Romero's movie after all. You can't go home again -- even if you're dying to.

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carina.chocano@latimes.com

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"George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead." MPAA rating: R for strong horror violence and gore, and pervasive language. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. Exclusively at the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 281-8223).

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