Knight at the Movies - Archives
A fifth installment of Romero's zombie series is dark, creepy and funny, so too a terrific Saturday matinee for kids
Forty years after Night of the Living Dead George A. Romero is once again raising the dead. His latest foray into zombie territory, his
fifth, is called Diary of the Dead and like The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield it’s filmed by one of the characters on a camcorder
as it proceeds. This new type of horror film (take mental terror and add physical discomfort thanks to the camera jiggling) worked to
great effect for those two and works here as well. The immediacy of the camcorder, with its pretense of reality, and the low budget
look it provides is a particularly effective device for Romero, a filmmaker who has never really moved away from his scrappy
beginnings. And unlike his multiple imitators Romero once again proves that when it comes to grisly zombie pictures he’s the
Romero’s story follows a group of college film students who are caught up in the ongoing mass chaos that ensues when the dead
start to rise up and feast on the living. As the movie begins they are shooting a mummy picture out in the woods in rural Pittsburgh
when news reports of the zombie attacks interrupt them. The director of the group decides to keep shooting and the resulting film,
“The Death of Death,” we are told in voice over, has been finished as a tribute to the now dead filmmaker. The plot follows the cast
as they race around in a Winnebago trying to outrun the carnage and mayhem and there are side trips to a dormitory, an emergency
room, and a McMansion, the home of one of the characters.
Throughout, Romero (who again penned the script) finds the right balance of grisly visuals and black humor and the film, at around
90 minutes, is well paced and offers plenty of suspense, familiar though it may be (a lurching zombie approaching in the
background toward an unsuspecting victim never fails to elicit squeals). As usual, Romero finds more audacious ways to kill a
zombie than any of his imitators – a man pulls off the nose of a zombie dressed as a clown at a children’s birthday party, another
gets taken out by electric paddles, one gets acid to the head, conveniently melting his brains on camera, etc. A brief, alternately
hilarious/gross sequence with an Amish farmer is a highlight.
Like Romero’s Land of the Dead and Dawn of the Dead, he adds metaphor to the gore (though the carnage isn’t anything close to the
torture porn of the Saw and Hostel series). Though Romero’s commentary on the zombie-like populace, forever texting on their cell
phones and recording life rather than partaking in it is certainly valid he goes overboard with the metaphor. And after 40 years of
zombie pictures Romero’s film again doesn’t answer the question that always comes to mind: has anyone ever done the math? I
mean, would the zombies really rise up so quickly the living wouldn’t have a chance to fight back? These movies never really
explain how things would fall apart so quickly (though the recent I Am Legend took a pretty good stab at it).
I also wish that Romero had written a group of characters that didn’t include the by now standard zombie deniers. It would have
been much more interesting at this late date to see a smart little movie with characters who believe from the get go in the mortal
dangers of the zombies and who don’t take chances and are really smart but still get zombified anyway – at least most of them.
Memo to George A. Romero: maybe try this out on the next go round.
Now this is a recipe for a magical movie: an old Victorian mansion deep in the woods, a hidden dumbwaiter leading to a mysterious
room, a dusty key that opens a book filled with secrets of another world, something skittering about in the walls, and a curious boy
eager to begin an adventure. Those are just some of the elements of The Spiderwick Chronicles, a marvelously entertaining
fantasy adventure movie that has been based on a series of popular books.
The little boy, Jared, is played by Freddie Highmore and he’s also gets to play his twin, Simon. These two are very much in "The
Patty Duke Show" mold – Jared is the troublemaker, Simon, the quiet egghead. They also have an older sister and a conveniently
absent mother, Helen (Mary-Louise Parker) so that when the action kicks in there’s no adult around to put the brakes on. Helen,
broke after what we perceive has been a messy divorce, has brought her kids to live in the broken down mansion of her Aunt Lucinda
(Joan Plowright) who has moved to the local nursing home. Jared, we quickly find, is bitter about the divorce and the move but when
he stumbles into the mystery elements he perks up, revved up by the possibilities they present. All this is very safe and familiar
territory for movie goers having been the basis for dozens of books and pictures for decades – everything from Lassie to E.T.
The action is familiar, too. It revolves around the title book and the detailed account it provides of an unseen world that includes
fairies disguised as flowers and child chomping ogres – not to mention a warthog-like thing that loves to eat birds. The head of the
ogres, a shape shifter (who at one point appears in the guise of Nick Nolte) wants the book and sends his minions to get it. The
book was compiled by Aunt Luncinda’s father Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn) who disappeared 80 years earlier. There’s also a
mouse/rat thingy that helps our pint sized hero, protects the book, lives on honey, and turns into a cranky beastie when it gets mad
(like a gremlin when it gets wet).
I’m not sure how many books have been condensed into this one film but the adapters and director Mark Waters do an admirable
job – the film is briskly paced, allows time here and there for reflection, and gives as much weight to the story as to the special
effects. And it all wraps up in 97 minutes making this not just a great Saturday matinee for 10 year-olds, but one for their indulgent
parent(s) or handy dandy favorite gay relative/babysitter as well.
Zombies and Ogres and More Oh My!:
George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead-The Spiderwick Chronicles
Expanded Edition of 2-13-08 Windy City Times Knight at the Movies Column*
By Richard Knight, Jr.
*The Spiderwick Chronicles screened after my column deadline but in time for me to include it here