YouTube Apocalypse: Diary of the Dead, Redacted
By Fernando F. Croce

Render unto the YouTube generation what is the YouTube generation's: Galling drivel like The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, namely. The first-person cinema excoriated by Michael Powell in Peeping Tom is by now a genre as prone to corruption as any other, but George A. Romero and Brian De Palma refuse to pander -- Diary of the Dead and Redacted are eye-am-a-camera investigations to make Marshall McLuhan smile, miles away from the blinkered self-infatuation which has so often turned the lenses of our time into Narcissus' ponds. Romero in Diary contemplates the blogosphere and offers a mock-assemblage of found footage shaped as a horror document, the heroine (Michelle Morgan) articulates his purpose: "In addition to telling you the truth, I am trying to scare you." The characters are a bunch of film students working on their class project, a mummy saga; the wannabe-auteur holding the camera (Josh Close) knows his ghoulish lore, and reminds the leading man that the undead don't run. Romero, who came up with the lore in the first place, unleashes a new wave of zombies their way, and the kids drive off into the latest of the director's American nightmares. Along the way, there are dynamite-hurling Amish farmers, radicalized black survivalists, and, in one genius bit, a zombified clown at a kiddie party; "If it's not on camera, it doesn't exist," it is said more than once, so the all-important camcorder remains superglued to the young protagonist's eyes even as viscera is spilled and craniums are cracked all around him.

Governed by digital-guerilla surveillance and largely scored to half-heard radio sounds, Diary of the Dead trenchantly implicates the media into the ongoing apocalypse that in previous Dead chapters already included family, capitalism, the military, class divides. The government tries to explain away the outbreak of cannibalistic creatures as the result of an unknown "viral strain" (complete with orange homeland-security alert), but, as somebody says, "the news is always bullshit" -- both a sardonic satirist and a peculiar humanist, Romero brutally tears into societal breakdown while never forgetting that the zombies exposing it were at one point living beings. Horror films are veritable troves of subversive subtext, yet there's been an unwise impulse in the director's latest works to try to bring it into the open, as when the students' bitter, soused (but handy with archer's bow) professor (Scott Wentworth) spells out the plot's relevance: "In wartime, killing comes easily. Cruelty becomes justified." Nevertheless, Diary is an extraordinarily evocative examination of spectatorship, on par with Tavernier's Deathwatch in its view of the camera as a distancing instrument, but also a profoundly transformative, even redemptive one. When Close uses his only moment of computer access to edit and upload his footage, Romero is critical of the cameraman's warped priorities but, in a way, also hopeful of his resourcefulness in documenting the chaos -- the kids are alright, even if they end up surrounded by ghouls in a mansion of a thousand screens. The glimmer of hope is all the more affecting by being capped by the rather Blakean beauty of the final shot, an image that, as is Romero's wont, forges gruesome poetry out of a splatter effect.

*

De Palma's Redacted, caught recently on DVD after last year being unceremoniously dropped from my local theaters, provides another corrosive POV tract, made like Diary of the Dead with bursts of acrid humor and politicized vehemence. Where Romero tells his story mainly through a single camera, De Palma argues that his story (based on a 2006 atrocity in Iraq) cannot really be told even with a hundred different cameras, websites, network reports, and furtive nightvision glimpses. The budding director here is a Samarra-stationed soldier (Izzy Diaz) who keeps a video-diary of life in the barracks, where tensions among American grunts escalate from heat-cracked tedium to horrific rage and lead to the rape and murder of an Iraqi girl by a pair of crude, uniformed psychopaths (Patrick Carroll, Daniel Stewart Sherman). Also included in De Palma's collage is an uproariously portentous French documentary (a Bruno Dumont lampoon?), reportage from an Iraqi news show, and web videos ranging from the sobs of a soldier's wife to bloody insurgent retaliation. Redacted has to be the most stridently direct anti-war howl since Chris Marker's fervid episode in the 1967 omnibus Far From Vietnam -- no sneakily smuggled subtext here, just confrontational anger at endless brutality and distorted truth. The director's concern is deeply felt, yet it is his old obsession, the camera's unreliability, that still engages him the most: The notion of cinema as an implicating art that taints and obscures as much as it illuminates, a feeling that brings this bold, ragged experiment closer to Blow Out (pain turned into effect, a "war story" to be swapped among chums) than to Casualties of War. "I didn't want to see it, I didn't want to be part of it," a devastated character says. Not a chance in De Palma's world.

*

The exceedingly imbecilic Jumper displays plenty of the passive image-consumption that both Diary of the Dead and Redacted revolt against. The dopey story (based -- yaaawn -- on graphic novels) has an appropriately complacent hero, a dead-eyed dolt (Hayden Christensen, natch) who, endowed with teleporting powers, becomes a sort of lothario Flash, zipping into bank vaults when he needs money, across the globe when he needs some poon, and from one side of the couch to the other when he needs the remote control. His gift allows him to get a tan atop the Sphinx one moment and take his high-school sweetie (Rachel Bison) to the Coliseum the next; buzzkill comes in the form of an absurdly platinum-haired Samuel L. Jackson, the leader of a cabal of "jumper" hunters. Director Doug Liman remembers everything he learned shooting Brangelina in Mr. and Mrs. Smith (photogenic people in luscious locations), and forgets everything he learned shooting Swingers, Go, and The Bourne Identity -- a better filmmaker would have given the material some kind of vertiginous rhythm, yet Liman just plods humorlessly, flavorlessly. If there's any meaning to the protagonist's teleporting other than a generation's unfortunate predilection for "skipping the boring parts," then I've missed it.


Reviewed February 25, 2008.

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