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DID YOU READ

George A. Romero on “Diary of the Dead”

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By Aaron Hillis

Although a strong case could be made for why “Martin” and “The Crazies” are neglected classics, the richest work in horror maven George A. Romero’s oeuvre always seems to be populated with wall-to-wall zombies. Romero invented cinema’s undead flesh-munchers, at least the modern mythos, but his intelligence and staying power among cinephiles comes from how he uses the genre to reflect and poke holes in real-life societal ills. 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead,” the granddaddy of them all, famously invoked Vietnam-era paranoia, with an ending that showed how mankind could be just as monstrous as the moaning hordes. 1978’s consumer-dependency spoof “Dawn of the Dead” followed, then 1985’s macho-fascism rampage “Day of the Dead,” and 2005’s “Land of the Dead” played like a greatest hits whack at 20 years of corporate greed and political corruption.

It’s now a quintet with Romero’s “Diary of the Dead,” a terrifying, whip-smart, often darkly hilarious critique of new media. Resetting the series’ timeline, the film goes back to day one of the zombie infestation, as seen through the eyes of film students making their own horror flick. As the news begins breaking, one student makes it his compulsive duty to record every second of history as it’s being made, and in turn, Romero’s film is structured entirely as a documentary-within-a-film — think “Cloverfield” with brains, “The Blair Witch Project” with substance or “Redacted” with zombies instead of disingenuous guilt. I chatted with Romero on February 5th (a day after his 68th birthday), or as the media played up its primaries branding, “Super Tuesday.”

There’s something fitting about “Diary of the Dead” coming out in an election year. Exactly how deep does your cynicism run when it comes to American politics today?

[laughs] I’m pretty goddamn cynical, but I’ve been that way forever. I don’t know, can you predict what’s going to happen? I just worry that there’s too much prejudice against a woman or an African-American to beat Romney, god forbid. I have no idea which way it’s going to swing. Before we made “Night of the Living Dead,” we had a little production company that did beer commercials, industrial films, and so forth. We also did political campaigns, and in fact, we did Lenore Romney’s campaign to be governor of Michigan. Harry Treleaven and all the boys who brought you Nixon ’68 were there, and it just gave me an inside look at the scene. I’ve been pretty cynical about it ever sense.

What about in the long view? Are we better or worse off now?

I just can’t believe people can get suckered into the same old kind of political game-playing. It’s like Oral Roberts: there’s a way of talking, a way of winning issues. It’s ridiculous, there’s no straight talk. Part of what inspired this film is that, like that old show “Crossfire” on CNN, which was just people screaming at each other. You never got any information. Is the planet warming or not? We ought to be able to answer that question. There’s too much unmanaged information, and half of it is just opinion. Obviously, there are tremendous advantages to having this incredible access to information. I use the web all the time, and it’s fabulous. But it’s also wide open for the bad guys: how to build a bomb, how to order a hooker, whatever! It’s all on there.

Was the emerging media idea your main reason for rewriting the series’ history, or had you always intended to go back to the beginnings of the zombie rising?

No, I had the idea first, that these would be film students with a camera, and they could document it. I couldn’t really do that three years in after it had become Thunderdome! They wouldn’t be attending classes anymore, so I felt I could go back. It’s sort of returning to the roots, and it’s a film about people who were very much like what we were like when we made the first film. It was really like coming home.

02202008_diaryofthedead.jpgIt’s definitely coming home. “Diary” seemed to me like your angriest film since “Night,” a clear-headed evaluation on how we’re choking ourselves with so-called information. In a world with both tabloid TV and “Faces of Death,” how would you suggest we determine what’s worth documenting?

[laughs] Man, I don’t know! How do you draw that line? There’s a certain belief in journalism that if there’s a story, it’s worth reporting, no matter what the story is. Now they’re saying, “Hey, if you see a car chase or a fire outside your window, shoot it, and we’ll put it on the air.” It’s trivializing it, when there’s always been some management figure saying, “This is a big enough story.” That’s not right either, but the point is now it’s every which way but loose: “Look, that cat has a third ear, put it on CNN!”

Most of the stuff that plays solidly for three, four days a week seems pretty trivial to me, compared to some of the real problems we’re having in the world. It’s hard to define what you think is worthwhile. Ultimately, it comes down to somebody’s judgment — is Arianna Huffington any more of a judge than Joe Schmo in Chicago? I prefer the old days when it was being managed. Maybe I was being manipulated, but I always thought I was able to see through that. It bothers me a lot more having thieves and bad guys shouting at me.

So the next time I see Britney clogging up my television, what am I supposed to do with this these resentments your film exudes?

I know! That’s what’s so frustrating about it. It’s really a new question. With the power people still in control of the mainstream, all we’re getting is garbage. I’m sure there are people out there writing blogs, these timid little voices in the wilderness being straight-ahead, honest and trying to point out major issues and big problems, but they get lost in all the other smoke. I thought it was a bit demeaning, some of the questions sent in to the [CNN-YouTube] presidential debates. Some cat with a guitar gets on there and he’s entertaining. Somebody dresses up like a snowman, they throw them in. Here you are, running for this important office, and… I don’t know. There was something impolite about it.

If there aren’t any easy solutions, how destructive do you think media’s failings could potentially be?

I don’t think it’ll ever destroy the world because, in the end, there are enough people that either don’t pay attention or aren’t going to get suckered in. How bad could it get? It could be Nazi Germany on a grander scale, but somehow we seem to recover from that stuff. It amazes me that people are so willing to follow, that’s what scares me the most. People will send their last dime to some television evangelist without asking any questions. Someone who has impressive qualities and claims to be a leader and have some answers is going to get a lot of followers.

It’s a scary world. I’m half-Latino and my name is Latino. I grew up in an Italian neighborhood, and I was always getting knocked around by the Italian kids. So I know that the world can turn on you. You just don’t want anything that creates this kind of tribalism. Nobody listens to Rush Limbaugh unless they’re “with” what he’s saying. That’s the kind of shit they want to hear. And nobody is going to listen to these bloggers unless it’s the kind of shit they want to hear, but it’s pretty easy to preach radical ideas that a lot of people think is common sense. The idea of terrorism is having the same kind of effect, so that all over the world, people see this as a viable solution, and it’s just happening everywhere. I worry about when people get online and start preaching.

This is officially depressing, so let’s end on a lighter note. I loved your self-referential joke about why zombies can’t move quickly. What were your thoughts the first time you saw a sprinting zombie in a movie, such as Zack Snyder’s “Dawn of the Dead” remake?

Obviously, I was… disappointed? Not a strong enough word. I thought it was ridiculous! First off, there are two sides to this argument. I grew up on “The Mummy,” man, the Christopher Lee “Mummy.” I like the idea of this big, slow, lumbering dead thing. He’s never going to catch you if you run, but you can drill him full of holes and he just keeps coming. There’s just something inevitable about this monster, and I think that’s scarier than things running at you. The other side of the argument is that I just don’t believe it. These things are dead, they’re stiff! Like in the “Return of the Living Dead” movies, where they’re digging their way out of graves. How does a weak zombie dig his way out of all that mahogany?

“Diary of the Dead” is now in limited release.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.