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George Romero is back with Diary of the Dead

The scary film project


Shooting zombies in Diary of the Dead - PHOTO BY STEVE WILKIE/ THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY
  • Photo by Steve Wilkie/ The Weinstein Company
  • Shooting zombies in Diary of the Dead

George Romero's zombie films have, to his fans, assumed the rarified air normally reserved for, say, the latest Woody Allen comedy or Martin Scorsese gangster flick. Even as the undead genre winds its way through revival and parody, Romero's imprimatur affords his ongoing work a certain level of cachet ... and critical lenience.

Diary of the Dead, Romero's fifth zombie movie, is full of characters exuding single-minded grit. Unfortunately, they are the zombies, because the survivors traversing the director's latest apocalyptic rendering are as uninteresting as they are unimportant. A class of young film students and their professor abandon production of their own amateur horror movie when the actual flesh-eating undead begin to rise. The group grabs a camera, hops into an RV and starts traveling from one harrowing misadventure to another.

Diary is presented under the guise of an amateur film called The Death of Death, which compiles handheld camera footage the students capture during their odyssey. Apparently, they also found time in the midst of the end of days to splice in various surveillance camera video, digital effects and a voiceover narration, not to mention uploading the whole thing to MySpace. The plot is typically one-note—zombie attack, grieving a loss, pointless bickering, followed by another zombie attack—and punctuated by dialogue so banal and hollow it sounds as if it were actually written for the cut-rate project this movie pretends to be.

Fictional amateur filmmaking slowly becomes a cover for actual lazy filmmaking when the students conveniently stumble across a second high-def camera inside a hospital (?!) just so Romero can start employing multiple angles and cutaways; even with this allowance, the camerawork remains conveniently omnipresent. To further connote a low-budget production, Romero inserts film defects—but anachronistic, celluloid-era ones, rather than digital.

Amid the obligatory splattered brains and oozing entrails, Romero examines the ubiquity of our multimedia culture, a world where "if it's not on video, it's not real," and assails how the YouTube generation has become desensitized to violence, disaster, war and death. In his reach for contemporary relevance, Romero at one point even uses actual post-Katrina footage to illustrate the urban chaos wrought by the zombies. (Cloverfield was pilloried for its mere fictional resemblance to New York on Sept. 11; imagine the outcry if it had incorporated video of the Twin Towers toppling.)

Here, Romero's legendary skill at weaving social commentary seems forced and a little hypocritical. More than once, the screenplay equates shooting a gun with shooting a camera. This banal assertion ignores how the light of day often galvanizes public opinion, seals the historical record or reveals truth, whether it be Holocaust horrors, the genocide in Sudan and Darfur or merely the role of surveillance video in identifying criminal perpetrators.

Moreover, a total lack of discernible irony leaves only obliviousness (or sheer chutzpah) to explain how this message can be delivered by a filmmaker who has made his living and legacy replicating bloodshed—then committing the same for mass public consumption. Diary of the Dead ends with a couple of redneck hunters hanging and beheading a zombie, after which the narrator wonders aloud whether our world is worth saving. Our world? Sure. On the other hand, it may be high time to put Romero's cinematic menagerie out of its misery.

Diary of the Dead opens Friday at Carolina Theatre.

It's a ring! Hogsqueal and Jared (Freddie Highmore) on the case in The Spiderwick Chronicles - PHOTO COURTESY OF PARAMOUNT PICTURES

It is a tricky enterprise to apply logic to a kids' fantasy film. But, The Spiderwick Chronicles, the latest progeny of the Harry Potter and Chronicles of Narnia child fantasy templates, invites such scrutiny. Unlike its forerunners, which are typically situated in some extra-dimensional universe, Spiderwick sets its action squarely within the grounds of a rundown New England estate. Indeed, during one scene, a troll chases the protags through a maze of underground tunnels and through a manhole in the middle of town, where the creature is promptly flattened by a passing truck.

So, when brothers Jared and Simon Grace (Freddie Highmore, pulling double duty) accompany their sister, Mallory (Sarah Bolger), and mother, Helen (Mary-Louise Parker), in moving into the Spiderwick Estate, former home of great-great-uncle Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn) before he mysteriously disappeared 80 years ago, the questions start piling up faster than the supernatural oddities. Jared comes across Uncle Spiderwick's homemade Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You locked away in the bowels of the old house, affixed with a handwritten card warning against reading or even opening the book. Naturally, Jared does both, awakening a horde of goblins and a powerful ogre named Mulgrath (voiced by Nick Nolte) bent on nabbing the book and unlocking its secrets.

Pardon the interruption, but exactly what were Mulgrath and the goblins—which resemble the animated mucus creatures in those Mucinex commercials—doing for the past 75 years besides waiting for some dopey kid to come along and deliver a book to them? A magic spell shields the Spiderwick house itself from invasion, but the goblins roam free outside it, capable of pillaging, invisibility and, in Mulgrath's case, shape-shifting. Why do they need this book, and why can they not ferret out its secrets the same way Arthur Spiderwick did? Come to think of it, what exactly is in the book, how did Spiderwick discover the information and why did he commit it to writing knowing it could only be used for evil? And, is that really Seth Rogen and Martin Short doing voice work?

Most of these questions are addressed in greater detail in Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black's five-novel series, first published in 2003. But much gets lost in their translation to a screenplay doctored by eight writers (though only three are credited). One of them, indie filmmaker John Sayles, came up with the idea of compressing the entire series into this 97-minute cinematic CliffsNotes. The result is slipshod and curiously anti-climactic—something to do with tomato sauce, oatmeal and a bird-eating hobgoblin—while also adrift in narrative perplexities and fixated on off-putting subtexts like Jared's anger management problems and the estrangement between his mother and father.

Like Highmore's last film, the similarly abstruse The Golden Compass, The Spiderwick Chronicles is a kids' flick that lacks the grownup virtues that make other fantasy series so durable.

The Spiderwick Chronicles opens Thursday throughout the Triangle.


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