The Boyf, in his eternal awesomeness, scored us passes to a sneak preview of Diary of the Dead last night, then took me out for sushi and fine cocktails. Yes, we went to watch a zombie movie and then went out to eat raw meat after. I cannot think of a more fabulous Valentine’s Day. It was completely awesome.

Now, the big question – especially after Land of the Dead – is whether Romero’s still got it in him to make a good zombie movie. The answer: yes, sometimes despite the script’s best efforts. Diary of the Dead really is a good, scary, sometimes touching zombie movie. Let’s break that down, though, because it does have some issues.

The cast consists of a Type II collection of Assorted College Students: the woman from Austin who says “Don’t mess with Texas!” more than once, the brooding guy from Queens, the tense girlfriend, the alcoholic film studies professor, the cute nerdy guy who barely has a line. The story is of their collective attempt to escape from Pittsburgh and drive an aging RV to the tense girlfriend’s family home in Scranton, PA.

It is impossible, at this point in the history of horror films, to sit down and watch the movie without fighting the temptation to keep a who-gets-eaten scorecard. The film tries to spice up the beginning so that it’s not just a promenade meant to give names and faces to the targets by making the whole thing a little over-the-top meta: it’s a film-within-a-film, entirely seen through one of two cameras being carried by the narrators since the core cast are all film students who had been out working on a class project. It doesn’t really work to prevent the viewer from still seeing the cast as a lineup of zombies-to-be but it makes the process of introductions so mechanical and so overt that one has to give them credit for trying.

As to the horror itself, this isn’t like, say, Dawn of the Dead, where the horror is that sense of overwhelming numbers of zombies milling around and no way to get around them and it’s not even like the attempted feel of Day of the Dead where the cast are surrounded on all sides but walled in and have a false sense of fleeting control over their circumstances. No, no, no. This film goes right back to his roots, right back to Night of the Living Dead and its oppressive, creeping horror derived not from the presence of zombies outside but the pressures of shock and distrust and fear boiling up in the people inside.

That is the tremendous success of this film: that the moments of abject terror – and there are moments that made a crowd clearly hardened on the front lines of NEVERMORE and RETROFANTASMA cry out as one, usually followed by open applause – are moments of claustrophobia, tight spaces, dim light, a vacuum filled not by gore but by the shallow, labored breathing of people who don’t know what’s around the corner or find a place they’ve always gone to for help – say, a hospital – to be anything but safe. This is a film that respects the power of empty spaces filled up by the mind rather than caves or everglades packed full of monsters.

That said, it has moments that probably weren’t supposed to be laugh lines but got roaring guffaws from that same NEVERMORE/RETRO crowd. There are lines meant to be profound that one can almost hear clank when they come out of a character’s mouth, scenes that hit the screen with an audible thud. What inspires one to forgive such stumbles are the unexpected but certain steps that almost always immediately follow, in which something happens that feels very real and very sincere without bearing a cumbersome freight of earnestness: a line that was meant as a toss-off or might even have been spontaneous that strikes right at the heart of the matter at hand, a delivery that makes one’s innards roil in fear at the sudden realization that the awful situation of the film didn’t actually go away because of a fumbled laugh-line five seconds before. As we were walking out, The Boyf said, “The moments of profundity fell flat but the moments of reality were profound.”

The other thing that made this film really work for me was having watched a documentary about American horror films and their makers at NEVERMORE a few years ago. In it they interviewed George Romero and also interviewed his long-time friend and collaborator, Tom Savini, and asked what inspired them. Savini explained that he was an Army war photographer in Vietnam. Savini is perfectly calm through his description of the way he coped with photographing a real person whose skull had been split open by telling himself he was studying – just studying – for a later film career but it’s clear by the simple admission that he needed a fantastical distraction to do that job that it was deeply affecting. Here he’s made a film about a documentarian trapped in a horrific situation of death and conflict and fear – a fear of enemies that sometimes can’t be identified until one is too close to do anything to defend against an attack – that grows to include two documentarians, then more as the others cooperate with being documented, and on and on and on.

I can’t escape feeling that this is Romero trying to tell us the horrible things that he knows or imagines must have replayed inside Savini’s head when he answered that simple question for a documentarian a few years ago. He’s trying to tell us, with all these scenes of horror in a wooded countryside, a horror about which the government and the media lie until it’s too late, a horror that first touches the poor and middle class who have fewer escapes but from which the rich can hide, what Savini felt forty years ago. In its own way, it’s almost a real documentary. Reflecting on that while I watched Diary of the Dead, I found it impossible not to be horrified. All the clunky lines and ham-fisted profundity in the world couldn’t take away that kernel of first-hand experience at the heart of the film.

Also, the Amish guy totally ruled.

Some further thoughts I realized I forgot to include: Romero is clearly trying to address or at least reflect our more contemporary fears as he always does, and not just tell us the story of his good friend Tom Savini (in the first of Romero’s films not to include Savini in a very, very long time). The film strives to remind us of the failures of Katrina – including some Katrina footage – as well as the paranoid fear that grips us six years and change after the most recent terrorist attack in the US. It tries to incorporate the tensions of a society in which suburbanites have alarm systems and the wealthy have fenced properties and panic rooms and everyone seems resigned to living in a surveillance society, yes, but it never felt to me like it was about those things in the way Day of the Dead is about the Cold War or Night of the Living Dead was about the conflicts that center on class or race. There’s probably an argument to be made that the film-within-a-film element is a commentary on the age of YouTube and there is some explicit commentary about whether a highly connected society actually finds objective truth by filtering it through a greater number of subjective reports but for all the elements clearly meant to pick at our contemporary psychic scabs I kept going back to the horror of watching all this happen and the comfort some characters find in seeing it all happen through a camera even though they’re the ones holding the camera. That just screamed at me of Savini’s experiences, over and over, until it drowned out anything to be found or said about our world today.