Zombies: Either too meta, or not meta enough

April has been zombie month for me. I saw George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead at the Pickford in Bellingham. Romero has a filmography that’s hard to criticize (he made Monkey Shines, for Christ sakes) but 2005 Land of the Dead was heinous crap, so I was a bit hesitant for Diary. Well, it was better than Land, but it was still only one third of a good movie. There are some really scary parts, there’s some great zombie gore, and there’s the most badass Amish guy ever put to film, but there’s also a lot of Romero’s self-indulgent philosophizing—which gets more and more affected with each Dead film he makes. Romero, why don’t you look back to Night of the Living Dead when it comes to hashing out your big thematics? Night had a social message, but it didn’t sacrifice the movie to get it across. Diary, on the other hand, will be going along smoothly—civilians eaten, zombie skulls dissolved by hydrochloric acid (awesome)—and then it will grind to a halt for ten minutes while the narrator talks about YouTube and the blogosphere. We’re a nation of watchers indeed. Cloverfield, which had a similar conceit and was a much better movie, made some similar points without having to bash its viewers over the head with them.


But there’s another, bigger problem with Diary of the Dead. It’s a fake documentary about film students who find themselves in the midst of a zombie outbreak. These film students demonstrate a knowledge of the conventions of horror movies early on, with a lot of knowing winks toward zombie films, but when the dead rise from the grave they have no idea how to react. Not one of the horror movie-obsessed characters says “Hey, this is just like Night of the Living Dead. Shoot that thing in the face!” For a movie that is so self-aware, so meta, this seems like a serious oversight. Why has no zombie movie gone in this direction? Scream did it with 80s slasher movies, but Diary of the Dead, which had the perfect opportunity, blew it.


A few days later I saw a Max Brooks, author of World War Z, speak at WWU. Brooks is obviously very aware of the history, conventions, and shortcomings of the genre, but his stage presence was a little bland. You could tell he’s more comfortable behind his writing desk than in front of an audience. And oh, god, the audience. Zombies seem to attract a wide array of annoying nerds—movie nerds, horror nerds, comic nerds, ironic hipster nerds—and Brooks played right to them. At least he knew his audience. After Diary of the Dead, Max Brooks seemed almost too meta. Like in his books, he played his lecture straight. “Sure, Dawn of the Dead is a cool movie, but it’s fiction, people,” Brooks warned. “The strategies in that movie aren’t going to save you when the real zombies show up.” The audience laughed, and Brooks was successful with his shtick, but it never varied. If Diary was a half-assed meta zombie narrative, Brooks is a meta-meta zombie intellectual. Weird that somebody so specialized, so dripping with irony found such a lucrative niche. By the way, if you haven’t read World War Z, I highly recommend it. Also, maybe the movie version will get it right.


~ by Ian D. on April 15, 2008.

2 Responses to “Zombies: Either too meta, or not meta enough”

  1. I think you’ve made a really good point about Romero beating you over the head with his philosophies here. In fact, that’s the same criticism I have of No Country for Old Men. I enjoyed this movie for the fact that Romero has seemed to acquiesce to the end of the zombie genre. I appreciated the way he basically says that he is no longer attempting to make a good ‘zombie movie,’ but trying to do something different with it. That being said – much of the time I think he executed what he was trying to do poorly. I think the film could have been much more polished, and some of his work suggests that he could have done better, some suggests this is right up his alley. Anyway, thanks for the post!

  2. I second Matt, especially when it comes to No Country. What you said about Diary of the Dead in terms of the poorly done “meta” aspect is so right on. You should probably post on zombies at least once a week. I apologize for my lack of commenting on your recent posts but I lack the necessary background in video games.

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