Compared with other first-person motion-sickness horror pictures like The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead is weak tea, yet there’s enough social commentary (and innovative splatter) to acidulate the brew—to remind you that Romero, even behind the curve, makes other genre filmmakers look like fraidy-cats. This is not a continuation of the living-dead saga that began with the 1968 masterpiece Night of the Living Dead. It’s set in the age of the Internet, from which the grim narrator, Debra (Michelle Morgan), downloads unedited footage of a TV correspondent getting chomped by a supposedly dead crime-scene victim. The movie is a video within a video within a video: Diary of the Dead is supposed to be Debra’s cut of her boyfriend Jason’s cut of The Death of Death, a first-person documentary of the reanimation of the dead that interrupted the shooting of Jason’s low-budget horror movie about the reanimation of a mummy. Got that? Reality is mega-mediated.
Debra explains that she’s finishing The Death of Death to reveal the truth that the government and its lackey mainstream media have suppressed—although it’s unclear how the population could remain oblivious to marauding zombie cannibals. Is this a metaphor for the atrocities happening oceans away, in Iraq? Can’t rule it out. Night of the Living Dead was the American cinema’s most visceral distillation of the social and racial upheavals of the sixties: Authority had collapsed, rifle-toting rednecks roamed the countryside, members of the nuclear family were slurping one another’s intestines. Romero carries on his critique in Diary. The National Guard doesn’t save the student protagonists but robs them of food and supplies. The wealthy barricade themselves in their mansions. African-Americans armed to the teeth confess there’s something exciting about having power after the rich white folks have fled.
But the odyssey of Debra, Jason (Josh Close), an alcoholic film professor (Scott Wentworth), and sundry nubile coeds is not especially enlivening. (Their destination? Where else in a Romero picture? Pittsburgh.) Like the memoir in which the first-person singular appears 23 times on every page, the “diary” film is getting old fast, and its limited vantage is especially frustrating here. Romero doesn’t have the speed-freak metabolism of the makers of Blair Witch and Cloverfield. His gift is for montage—for long shots of loping flesh-eaters mixed with low-angle close-ups of mottled faces, the remote side by side with the invasive. When Jason cuts together some zombie-attack footage on a computer, Diary of the Dead suddenly bestirs itself. That’s what the movie needs: editing!
It should be said that Romero’s lack of oomph is not just a sign of his age. It’s also a matter of conviction. Cloverfield was all You Are There sensation and no context—lovelorn yuppies amid the kind of devastation that rekindled the terrors of 9/11 to no good end. Romero can’t make a first-person movie without indicting his own techniques. Jason isn’t only documenting reality; he orders his friends to reenter a door to get more coverage. Later, he realizes that the camera has inoculated him from the true horror—that he’s seeing the world through a lens darkly. But that knowledge doesn’t help. When he’s infected, on the verge of becoming a zombie-cannibal, he asks Debra to shoot him—but with a camera, not a bullet.
Social, shmocial, you’re probably saying: How’s the grue? Juicy. In his half of Grindhouse, “Planet Terror,” Robert Rodriguez served up greater quantities of zombie carnage, but Romero wins the quality contest. And it’s not just that heads split open at geometrically intriguing angles, it’s that the ghouls aren’t mere cannon fodder. One poor fellow in the African-American compound gets acid dumped on his head, which dissolves oh-so-slowly as he staggers around in melancholy incomprehension. Diary of the Dead ends with a bit of editorializing as the upper half of a zombie head sways in the breeze, its eyes still seeing. It’s abrupt and crude (this is a Weinstein release, so there might have been carnage in the editing room), but it’s on message. Romero thinks we’ve lost the capacity to see. The movie suggests that uploading the truth won’t help us see it any clearer.
Stark and pitiless, Ezra has the makings of a different sort of zombie movie. It’s about a 7-year-old boy in Sierra Leone (the country isn’t named but is clearly the inspiration) who’s kidnapped by the rebel army, abused, coddled, brainwashed, plied with amphetamines, and turned loose on remote villages, where he dutifully slaughters men, women, and children. Newton I. Aduaka’s film leaps back and forth in time between Ezra’s army life and a hearing before the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” in which the chief witness against him is his sister (Mariame N’Diaye), whose tongue was hacked out by another boy soldier.
The opening primes you to expect one atrocity after another, but half an hour in, Ezra takes a sharp turn in the direction of compassionate humanism. The title character (Mamoudu Turay Kamara) isn’t a glassy-eyed monster—so what is he? A boy, mainly, who has truly come to believe that the government in power has plundered his country, that in war, people die. Dependent on ruthless, greedy men, he accepts that it’s permissible to cut off the hand that would vote for the enemy régime. But when Ezra encounters his mutilated sister and learns his parents were murdered, he recoils, rages, begs to be allowed to take revenge on their killers. He doesn’t remember that he was on the scene the night they died.
The story is hell to follow—the flashbacks aren’t in chronological order—and the nonacting variable. The tatty budget shows. But there are extraordinary moments in the rebel camp, in which the filmmaking becomes simpler as the psychology grows more complicated, as the boys (and girls) lean on one another and grope their way toward a kind of normalcy. Ezra’s moral awakening opens him up to the scale of the tragedy and brings pain instead of healing. Truth? Reconciliation? Not in this world.
The Spiderwick Chronicles boasts some of the ugliest animated creatures this side of Jar-Jar Binks, and the friendly ones are only marginally less repulsive than the lethal ones. (The obnoxious vocal stylings of Martin Short and Seth Rogen don’t help.) They’re all part of the fairy world that’s documented in a “field guide” by the late or at least disappeared Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn)—the book discovered in an attic by young Jared (Freddie Highmore) after he and his twin brother, Simon (Highmore again), sister, Mallory (Sarah Bolger), and frazzled mother (Mary-Louise Parker) move into Spiderwick’s dilapidated old mansion. The trolls, led by a giant blob with the voice of Nick Nolte (who shows up briefly in the flesh, looking more unmoored than the blob), lay siege to the house in an attempt to get their hands on Spiderwick’s tome, which apparently holds the key to world domination. The standoff stretches on and on, and I passed the time admiring the sound, especially the hoot owls coming from the back speakers. I’ve been trying to get the same effect on my own system at home, but I need to pay someone, like, $500 to tinker with it.
Oh, yes, Spiderwick. There’s nothing wrong with it that passion and personality couldn’t fix. The slim books by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black were derivative but unpretentious affairs with appealing black-and-white drawings. The movie is like something cobbled together out of pieces of better movies and homogenized inside a computer, then bathed in a twinkling, James Horner–channeling–John Williams score with a few chromatic chords to keep the orchestra from laughing the composer off the podium. As the troubled Jared, Highmore does well at suggesting he’s carrying the weight of the world on his little shoulders (he could be an honorary Osment, as in Haley Joel), and Bolger (one of the sisters in In America) is blossoming into a cat-eyed beauty. But Strathairn is too grounded to play the airy-fairy Spiderwick. He reels and moons and stares into the distance as if waiting for the village-idiot parade.
Diary of the Dead
Directed by George A. Romero.
The Weinstein Company. R.
Directed by Newton I. Aduaka.
California Newsreel. Unrated.
The Spiderwick Chronicles
Directed by Mark Waters.
Paramount Pictures/Nickelodeon Movies. PG.