George Romero’s Diary of the Dead (2007) is not part of the series that began with Night of the Living Dead (1968), and continued with Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), and most recently Land of the Dead (2005). It is rather a reimagining of the series from the ground up — almost like a remake of Night of the Living Dead in light of all the considerable social and technological changes that have taken place between 1968 and today. The living dead are still the slow, shambling creatures they were in Romero’s earlier movies (rather than the fast-moving monsters they have become in other recent zombie flicks like 28 Days Later. But this time they seem to arise, not out of the internal repressions of the American nuclear family (as they did in Night, but rather out of the violent mediascape that we all take for granted. The first scene of zombies arising does not take place in a cemetery; rather, it happens on an “action news” broadcast, showing the police cleaning up after an incident in which an “immigrant” shot and killed his wife and child, and then himself. The bodies arise as they are being carted off to the morgue; one of the vicitims they attack is the newscaster herself. (Romero doesn’t dwell on the suggestion that the current xenophobic bigotry, fear, and hatred directed against foreigners/aliens is behind the dread of the living dead; but the suggestion hangs on, nonetheless, throughout the film).
Diary of the Dead is an entirely “mediated” (or “remediated”) film. Like The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, and Redacted, it is composed entirely of shots that are taken from multiple sources, and edited together, within the diegesis (i.e. within the narrative world of the movie). Here, a group of college-student filmmakers take video footage of all they see around them as the world falls apart under the impact of the living dead, and edit this together with material taken from television, the Net, and surveillance cameras.
The mood of Diary of the Dead is somber and continually tense. Romero is still better than anyone else in orcehstrating the affects of the genre he invented. The film is entirely built around rhythms of tension and anticipation, of low-level anxiety that blooms into outright fear at just the right time (I mean, at just the wrong time for the characters and viewers, and thus just the right time in terms of making the movie as unsettling as possible). Even when you know what you are going to find — and we basically do, since we always end up finding the worst — you don’t know precisely when, where, or how you will find it. Sometimes you see horrible things, and sometimes you do not quite; by the standards of recent horror films in the Hostel and Saw mode, Diary of the Dead is in fact quite circumspect.Overall, there is less gross-out humor here than in Romero’s earlier zombie movies (though there is some); I think this has to do with the overall change in focus from grand spectacle driven by special effects to media fragmentation and multiplicity (also to the low budget, an aspect in which this film is again closer to Night than to any of its sequels, which were scarcely high-budget but which had more resources to mess around with).
Diary of the Dead‘s protagonists are a bunch of white college students (together with one older white man, their film professor). As in many of Romero’s films, there is a reversal of conventionally patriarchal gender dynamics. The women are generally more competent, and more able to hold themselves together emotionally and psychologically, than the white men. In all these films, the white men — rather than the women — tend to be the hysterics; they are generally given to some sort of (ultimately self-defeating) macho enactment that they refuse to give up on. Here, though, the obsession is not militaristic or power-hungry; it is rather the obsession to film everything, to record whatever happens on video, regardless of the risk, regardless of the harm to oneself or others. (At several points in Diary, the main male protagonist insists on continuing to film a zombie attack, rather than do anything to rescue the person being attacked). In this way, Romero continues his career-long interrogation of white male vanity and white male hysteria: which turns out to be as dysfunctional in times of crisis and need as it is overbearing and oppressive to others in times of peace and material plenty.
There isn’t as much about race here as there is in some of Romero’s other films. But there is one sequence where the students come across a group of black people (both men and women, but with more emphasis placed on the men) who are hunkered down and determined to survive. They explain that, due to the fact that all the white people ran away, they find themselves in charge or in control for the first and only time in their lives. They are grimly determined, but rational and mutually cooperative. They have no interest in macho heroics at the expense of survival. They are concerned for themselves first, but they do not take advantage of the students who encounter them, even though they clearly have the firepower and the numbers to push the students around. (The contrast is with a subsequent scene, where the students encounter two truckloads of National Guardsmen: the latter, instead of rescuing or saving the students, make them turn off the cameras and then rip them off of all their stuff, except for the cameras and comptuers, and some weapons and ammunition). What’s interesting about all this is that Romero doesn’t idealize the black characters; it is simply that (except perhaps for the main female protagonist) they are the only ones who retain some degree of civility, respect, and humaneness. (Well, perhaps I am exaggerating a bit: there’s also the quite decent deaf Amish farmer who helps the students out, until the zombies get him).
Much of this is of a piece with Romero’s previous movies: not only the Living Dead films, but also the similarly-themed The Crazies (1973), and such great, unjustly neglected films as Martin (1977) and Monkey Shines (1988). But what’s new about Diary of the Dead, at least for Romero, is its self-conscious and self-reflexive focus on media. Some reviewers and bloggers have complained that the film is too simplistic in its vilification of new media and our general social obsession with videotaping everything; but I think that in fact Romero’s take is much more complex and nuanced, not to mention visionary, than it has generally been given credit for. Romero has always been a “dialectical” filmmaker in the way he approaches social issues and social context, and the media discussion which takes up so large a part of Diary of the Dead is no exception.
The movie offers a number of parallels, contrasts, and other suggestions about the role of media in contemporary society, but none of these are definitive. The students start out filming a horror movie, before they find themselves caught up in a world where the horror has become real. (In this way, Romero implicates himself as a filmmaker, together with the characters in the film and the audience watching it). How the “real” world has become one with the movie world is made clear towards the end of the film, when the actor who had been playing the monster in the movie becomes a zombie, and stalks the very actress who had played his victim in the abortive attempt to shoot the horror flick. At the same time, the video camera is equated with the gun as a tool of violence. After one character kills a few zombies, he returns the gun to another character with the remark that it is just “too easy to use” the gun. Shortly thereafter, the female protagonist returns the video camera she has been using to her documentation-obsessed boyfriend with the same remark, that the camera is “too easy to use.” The argument between the two of them continues throughout the film. She says that he has become too obsessed with taping everything and uploading it onto the Net, and that doing this has made him numb to the actual human horror of what is happening. He responds that, since the government and the commercial media are systematically lying about what is going on, it is vital for him to get the truth out, by filming what is happening and uploading the material. The argument cannot be resolved because they are both right. At the end of the film, after he is killed, she goes ahead and edits and uploads his documentary, despite her earlier criticisms. At this point, the zombies are everywhere. Mobile phones have ceased to operate (apparently the transmission towers have gone down), but the Internet is apparently still working (well, it was originally designed to withstand even a nuclear attack). At this point, the debate has taken on a new form. On the one hand, when faced with the end of the world, there is really nothing you can do except bear witness to it in some form, which here means documenting it with video. On the other hand, even if the video is uploaded onto the Net, it is unclear whether there will be anyone left to watch it — the witness lacks an audience.
Such is the antinomy on which the film ends, and I think that it is a profound one. We have moved from being a “society of the spectacle” to being a society of participatory and interactive media. And Diary of the Dead is thinking about this change — not to say that the new media regime is either better or worse than what came before, but to try to delineate just how it is different. The great unitary spectacle of which Guy Debord wrote has been shattered, and replaced by new forms of distraction and activity in what Deleuze called the “society of control.” We are no longer passive, voyeuristic spectators; instead, we actively both give ourselves over to surveillance, and eagerly surveil (is that a word?) both others and ourselves. We fragment, multiply, and network both ourselves and whatever we encounter. This no longer falls under the dipolar schema of subject and object; but rather has the form of a network in which everyone and everything is a node. This also means that we have moved on from representation to simulation: instead of trying to capture the Real via mimesis, we actively produce bits and pieces of a reality that is directly composed of images, rather than merely being captured or reflected in images. The regime of simulacra is not an “extermination of the real” as Baudrillard claimed; it is rather a state in which the real is effectively being micro-produced and virally disseminated. In consequence, the real and the imaginary have become, as Deleuze puts it, “indiscernible”: reality pushes toward a “point of indiscernibility,” as a result of “the coalescence of the actual image and the virtual image, the image with two sides, actual and virtual at the same time” (Deleuze, Cinema 2, p. 69). Every imaginary simulation becomes altogether real, even as every reality is dissolved in simulacral multiplication.
In the Living Dead tetralogy, the zombies were something like the return of the repressed: their monstrosity was that of (successively) the family, of commodity fetishism, of the military-scientific complex, and of the socio-economic class system. But all of these belong to a realm of representation. In Diary of the Dead, all of these social formations are still in place; but, instead of representing these formations, or returning the disavowed tendencies of them, the zombies are now simulations, which is to say images, but images that directly constitute the real, as they replicate and proliferate everywhere. Though the female protagonist sarcastically suggests that, if her boyfriend does not videotape an incident, then it hasn’t happened, in fact everything that happens belongs to the realm of images on screens — regardless of whether or not his videocamera is around to capture it. It is not that the world has become unreal to us because we always view it mediated through cameras and screens; but rather that, since everything in the world has proliferated imagistically and virally, by contagion, in the way zombies proliferate and communicate their own condition to others — that therefore cameras and screens and computers are in fact the only tools we have left to cope with the world and its realities. This goes along with the shift from a situation where everyone watches images on television, to one where everyone owns a camera and actively captures/produces images.
The male protagonist calls his documentary film about the zombies — which is identical to Diary of the Dead, the film that we are actually watching — “The Death of Death.” Death itself is dead, and the “undead” refuse to die, precisely because nothing is ever allowed to vanish. Everything is stockpiled and retained: images, capital, data. We are actively solicited to produce, proliferate, and accumulate: in effect, this means that we are producing the zombies, the undead, precisely to the extent that we are struggling to stay alive, to not become “them.” Somebody in the film makes the point that, where human conflict used to be among groups of “us,” now it is between “us” and “them” — but where “they” are in fact also “us.” In a crazed society of accumulation, we try to hold on to everything; and this means holding on to the dead, too, with grotesque consequences. Near the end of the film, there is a long sequence where one of the actors in the initial horror film has holed up. It is his ultra-rich parents’ fortress/mansion out in the middle of nowhere. Even still alive, the actor-student is half-crazed; he has preserved all the zombified people around him — his parents, his parents’ servants, and everyone else in the house — as sort of weird “living sculptures” planted in his swimming pool (they stand fixed to the bottom, and seem unable to escape). This grotesquerie is echoed in the final moments of the screen, where we see Net footage of some white-middle-American hunter types, somewhere in Pennsylvania (the very people whom Obama was accused falsely of having a condescending attitude towards) having a grand old time as they hunt zombies for sport. (This also somewhat echoes the ending of Night of the Living Dead, where the black man who has survived the horror in the house is killed by the same sort of good ol’ boys, who casually take him for a zombie). The female protagonist narrator wonders whether, if this is what we are like, we are actually worthy of survival. It’s a real question, and one to which no easy answer can be given. Ultimately, I think that Diary of the Dead is a very personal film for Romero (despite the fact that clearly Romero cannot raise the money to make anything else except new variations on the zombie subgenre he pioneered forty years ago).