Friday, February 22, 2008

Dead issue

The most amusing idea in George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead comes early on, as student filmmakers attempt to liven up a hackneyed mummy scenario. What's funny is the notion of a pre-Night of the Living Dead movie world, one where Romero's zombies, who have cast long shadows over the genre for 40 years now, don't exist, and horror films basically stopped with Universal's pictures in the Thirties and Forties. When the flesh-eaters do turn up, the film, a reboot of Romero's quartet (or trilogy, if you, like the filmmaker, didn't get much out of 2005's I think underrated Land of the Dead), goes through the gut-munching motions, as the imperiled kids figure out pretty quick to shoot for the head. (The movie can't pause for us to relearn what we've known since 1968.) The difference is that it's conveyed in a video-diary format, an original idea when their respective filmmakers had it but itself a little fatigued since Redacted (which really pushes it) and the slicker Cloverfield.

Maybe it's just my own impatience with YouTube-ishly flattened images threaded together by voiceover and strategic editing tics and tricks, and 2D characters (inexpertly played) acting out behind and in front of the cameras as the Iraq/war on terror metaphors unfurl. [Future generations won't have much difficulty tagging these as made-in-2007 films.] But on first viewing Diary strikes me more as a footnote to the series than anything else. It's a little...dead. When, at the end, the movie wants to imprint upon us a particularly shocking image of homefront horror, I left impressed with the technical precision of the makeup effect. Diary of the Dead is too tightly controlled to entertain or edify us. It's a more sophisticated variant on the shaggier film crew-meets-zombies picture Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things, a Romero rip job from 1972.

By this time, zombies should be as tiresome as hit men or serial killers, but Romero's cinematic children find inventive ways to replenish the stock. The Signal, written and directed by a trio of Atlantans (David Bruckner, Dan Bush, and Jacob Gentry) is one of the best examples I've seen. The first two or three minutes capture the Seventies grindhouse aesthetic better than any of the many films (particularly the lumpen Tarantino/Rodriguez picture) that have attempted to do so, and the basic feel of the movie doesn't stand down too much from that raw and bleeding low-budget look once we realize that we're watching a film within a film, the first of many head games it plays with us. The Signal (which Magnolia Pictures opens today) is at heart a love story--but a valentine to Romero, Cronenberg, Stephen King, and other masters of horror besides.

The gruesome opening footage is what's on the TV as illicit lovers Ben (Justin Welborn) and Mya (Anessa Ramsey) unwind. The transmission is interrupted by a strange burst of static, which afflicts cell phones and other devices. Mya's journey back home is interrupted by a violent altercation, which further frazzles her as she plans to ditch her exterminator husband, Lewis (A.J. Bowen). Lewis, a creepy obsessive, grills her about her whereabouts when she returns to their apartment, then focuses his growing rage on his houseguests. In this he is not alone--the malignant signal is causing an escalating chain of homicidal horrors, which Mya barely escapes in one of several bravura stalk-and-slash sequences.

Scripted as a triangle, with half-hour-or-so increments focused on each of the three main characters, the film then concentrates on the wounded and disgruntled Lewis, who makes a serious mess of things as a housewife soldiers on with a New Year's Eve party despite her inconvenient slaying of her maddened husband. The broader horror comedy in this vignette suggests that in the worst of times (and it gets pretty damned bad here, as Lewis administers the tools of his trade on the partygoers to track Mya) people will go to great lengths to establish a "new normal" as Code Red blares.

Ben's quest to find Mya is the focus of the final movement, by which time the signal has scrambled reality and the life-and-death scenarios are as psychological as they are physical. From the get-go, something has been off; the film takes place in a nowhere city, Terminus, whose TVs seem up-to-the-minute but whose cell phones and other clunky technology (like Mya's portable CD player) are out of date in our i-times. Similarly, Mya and Lewis' apartment house is off-kilter, as much a dorm (and a prison) as a residence. This displacement adds another anxious level to the film as it reaches its own satisfying terminus, as the buckets of blood subside for a war of wills as Ben attempts to make good on his promise to get Mya out of the confines of the city. (Are the town fathers perhaps exercising social control with the signal?)

The Signal sure got my attention. It wears its allusions lightly: I got that the movie is a riff on Romero's unsung film The Crazies (its cinematography looks like that film did on TV before it got gussied up for DVD) with elements of Cronenberg's Videodrome, King's book The Cell, and other influences, plus a Pulp Fiction structure, but it doesn't dwell on its sources. It's very much its own blood-soaked thing, anchored to three well-calibrated performances (even the demented Lewis gets a sympathetic hearing) as the body count soars. The set-up is so outrageous the movie can never really become gratuitously violent (though you have been warned)--unleashed as it is, however, the human factor is its center. Romero is having an off movie, but The Signal is very much on his wavelength, and I'm sure he's pleased that his "kids" are alright.

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