Two cutting-edge horror films, Diary of the Dead and The Signal, open with swipes at the genre's past before making their own stabs at its future.
Atlanta's horrific, homegrown feature The Signal begins with a sequence reminiscent of both 1970s grindhouse shlock and modern-day "torture porn" à la Hostel. George Romero reaches back even further in Diary of the Dead's early scene that mocks cheesy, low-rent mummy movies, with a bandaged marauder pursuing a white-gowned damsel.
Indie horror flicks can have more on their minds than recouped investments and screaming, unclad ladies. The best use their outlandish stories as metaphors for social ills, though they don't always hit the mark. Diary of the Dead lurches after too many pompous themes while The Signal's economical sense of dread captures technological fears, even though the film's tonal shifts almost spell its undoing. A third entry, The Last Winter, scratches out a workable template for scaring audiences into thinking about what's going wrong outside the movie house.
George Romero crafted a landmark in socially conscious, low-budget filmmaking with 1968's Night of the Living Dead, which launched the ceaselessly imitated (and ripped-off) zombie genre. Diary, his fifth zombie outing in 40 years, reboots the concept to show a group of film students (and their clichéd, boozing professor) the apocalyptic phenomenon of corpses returning to life to feast on the living.
À la Cloverfield, we see the events almost entirely through the lens of a compulsive cameraman: would-be auteur Jason Creed (Josh Close), although his girlfriend (Michelle Morgan), who narrates, explains that she edited the film, added musical cues and posted it on the Internet. Early on, Jason shows a compulsion to film every minute of the zombie crisis, which bothers his cohorts nearly as much as all those undead cannibals shambling around. The realism of the camera-as-narrator gimmick undermines Romero's penchant for grotesquely slapstick kill scenes. Romero seems intrigued by online communication but doesn't articulate a coherent opinion about it.
Between a few well-staged suspense scenes, Diary drones on about media's voyeurism, their susceptibility to manipulation and other flaws in the national character. With so many heavy-handed speeches, it's as if Romero thinks we're zombies already.
Communications isn't just a symptom but the actual menace in The Signal, named for a hypnotic burst of white noise that overtakes televisions, cell phones and other broadcast media in a city called "Terminus." Primarily we follow sympathetic (but adulterous) lovers Ben (Justin Welborn) and Mya (Anessa Ramsey), who try to reunite after the signal sends audiences into homicidal fits.
The Signal originated with one of the Dailies programs of the Atlanta film community, with three directors helming a different third of the story. The Signal's long-awaited release completes a local success story that began with the film's 2007 premiere at the Sundance Film Festival and its $2 million acquisition by distributor Magnolia Pictures.
David Bruckner gives the first "transmission" a jittery, deliciously scary tone of impending menace, while Dan Bush brings the third part home in a dreamy, ruminative mood that's a little draggy for this particular story and genre. In between, however, Jacob Gentry opts for pitch-black comedy involving a blood-drenched New Year's party. Sandwiched between two "sincere" sections, Gentry's dark irony and sadism feel jarringly out of place, and the loosely suburban satire is at odds with the technological cautionary tale of the rest of the film.
Reminiscent of the innately likable John Cusack, Scott Poythress babbles theories about the signal's origins, but the film doesn't need explanation: Its images of passive viewers turning into active psychotics offers a supple metaphor for tuned-out channel surfers.
Writer/director Larry Fessenden condemns a different kind of complacency in The Last Winter. Fessenden specializes in small-scale horror films that address hot-button social issues, and The Last Winter suggests he's on to something. In a remote Alaskan station, an oil company wants to open a well in the Alaskan Wildlife Preserve, but a journalist (James LeGros) warns that global warming is wreaking havoc on the ancient permafrost. Do the subsequent outbreaks of violent behavior result from long-dormant "sour gas"? Or is a supernatural force lashing out at human hubris? The premise suggests an ungainly, Frankensteinlike creation, John Carpenter's The Thing stitched to Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. Instead, The Last Winter presents a surprising yarn with credible acting and characters, led by Ron Perlman, who turns the stock character of a macho oil man into a complex personality.
The Last Winter suffers from clunky scenes and narrowly misses the chance to present a climatic image as horrifying as the final shot of Peter Weir's The Last Wave. But global warming seems as viable a catalyst for cinematic scares as radioactive fallout was for 1950s creature features, especially in Fessenden's fresh, original portrayal of terror and paranoia. Like Romero and The Signal's directors, Fessenden doesn't let the public off the hook, either, and sows suspicion of the news and its consumers. For the new wave of horror films, the media can be the monsters.
To read Felicia Feaster, Curt Holman and David Lee Simmons live-blog the Oscar ceremonies this Sunday, visit www.clpopsmart.com.
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