By Ray Pride
Spoiler warning: “George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead” has zombies in it, and the zombies are metaphors!
Metaphors for what? Whaddya got? The 68-year-old resident of Toronto, born in New York to a Cuban-American father and a Lithuanian-American mother, doesn’t feel at all restrained by the four horror entries peopled by the undead that he’s put out since 1968: the political situation always allows his shambling metaphors to be vessels for whatever political messages might be in the air, including the 1978 “Dawn of the Dead,” set in a shopping mall, which shows prescient concern about the impact of consumerism, and the latest entry, which toys with ideas about mediated perception, ranging from the “truth” of televised news and “reality” television to the earnestness of film students to the barrage of information (and informers) that come from the Internet’s plethora of images and assertions.
“Diary” had its U.S. debut at Sundance in January and was easily one of the fiercest pictures on show. In fact, I’m not aware of any fiction features that might hold such sting. (Nonfiction, that’s another subject.) Had I been there before? The tall, affable Romero asks with concern. I tell him how many years. “Oh man! Do I feel sorry for you!”
Romero and I talked across several topics, but the one I wanted to dwell on is the ending, which floored me. Astute career observer of horror film Robin Wood wrote in the current issue of Film Comment that he doesn’t get the ending at all, when in fact its savagery is what transforms this mix of unease, disease and comedy into something above masterful. It may be one of the great endings of… well, this century, so far, at least.
[SPOILER: Here comes the ending.] There’s always a ray of hope at the end of Romero’s zombie movies. They’re slow. They’re stupid. They’re us, but they’re slow and stupid. Aren’t we smarter than them? There’s a voiceover throughout, that the film we’re watching, “The Death of Death” by Jason Creed, is the last testament of the student who’s filming his irritable friends as the world inexplicably turns deadly. So we know Jason’s not going to make it. At the end, a rich kid’s family manse turns out to be the place to wait it out. There’s a panic room behind steel doors, and the steel doors are behind a collection of first editions. They’re not by-the-yard decorator crap; a character fondles one of the books earlier, “A Tale of Two Cities” by Dickens. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” When the survivors retreat, they are locked behind a steel wall of knowledge. Of literature. Of words. A fortress, made not of iron but of ideas. The voiceover continues. Jason had found one last bit of imagery on the Internet before his death. Two men with guns tramp through the woods. They come upon a woman—a zombie, an undead woman—hanging from a branch extended over a dirt road, as timeless as a canvas by Ruisdael. But the image is Goya: the men do what men with guns out in the woods do. They fire. Close: the woman’s body falls, but the top half of her face remains. Two wide-open eyes, full of life. A tear falls. The tear is blood.
My astonishment is between the last two sequences, which I say to Romero as more an observation than a question, that the painterly, surrealist brutality of that image and what those guys have done, while we’ve left our heroes to wait it out in the panic room, behind a fortress of moneyedness, but also the wall of books that we know are real treasures, not fake books… they are protected by history and literature, and then we get the flip of the coin… cruel, unlearned men on the prowl with guns. I just had to sit there with the credits rolling with happy tears. What a punch.
“You know, I loved that shot. Originally I wanted that to be the last shot of the movie, books, as opposed to what’s going on ‘now’ on the web and all of that. I loved that idea. But then when I got the idea for that final sequence, I said, that’s a little stronger. The books, people might not get it. We juggled that around. I can’t tell you, we juggled that around for weeks, which is stronger, which is stronger, what is the stronger ending? We came down on the side of the books; maybe people aren’t going to get it. Thankfully, you got it, I don’t know if the rest of the audience out there would have. I loved the idea of contrasting that, when the guy who walks in and finds the first edition, I tried to set the idea up, books, all the thoughts that are in those books. The sequence with the rednecks was too hard to resist. Actually, we didn’t make the final decision until the CG house executed that shot. The guys who did the CG work sent it in and they added the tear in the woman’s eye. We just fell down.”
Romero chuckles without irony.
“George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead” takes a bite out of life Friday.