SEPTEMBER 1, 2011
When the worst part of a low budget indie horror movie is its title, you’re in pretty good shape. DIEner (formerly, I shit you not, Die-ner (Get it?) – so it could have been worse) is a strange blend of zombie movie and isolated serial killer movie; imagine George Romero tackling the diner scene from Natural Born Killers and you can get a decent idea of how this movie plays out.
Indeed, there does seem to be a legit Tarantino influence, as the opening scene is just a long monologue from a waitress, talking to an off-camera party. I think it’s a full five minutes, and while QT obviously didn’t invent this sort of idea (Godfather had one too, duh), the little asides about menu items and curious specificities of her story feel like the product of someone who watched his earlier efforts on a loop for a while before writing their screenplay. But it’s not the usual sort of “homage”, with a lot of strained pop culture references and the like, so I’ll let it slide. That the story ends with the woman explaining how her husband started nailing her sister also improves things, as does her unfortunate turn of phrase (“I’m spilling my guts out here...”) that prompts some stylish violence.
The hook comes along later, as the waitress and a couple of other victims suddenly return as zombies. There is no real explanation for it; at one point our charismatic and dryly hilarious killer suggests that they are merely the next step of evolution (a point he gets to after literally going through the entire history of man – this movie is not afraid to pad out its 75 minute runtime), and that’s about it. I could almost say that the movie had no point, but I was so amused by its laid-back and random nature, I didn’t mind. I kept thinking of the guy at the beginning of Rubber and his theory of “no reason” – he would certainly have much to say about this particular movie.
Plus, it’s not often that you watch one of these things and say “wow, that actor really carried the movie”. Joshua Grote is unfortunately cursed with looking and sounding exactly like Edward Norton (with a bit of James Van Der Beek), which is very distracting for an actor, but as the script admirably doesn’t turn him into some hero at the end, it’s even more impressive that you like the guy. Sort of like Riddick in Pitch Black – you hear about the terrible things he does and even see some of them, yet you’re still sort of rooting for him because the actor is charismatic enough to almost forget that he’s actually just as bad (or worse) than the “villain” of the film.
And again, that would be the zombies, who are seemingly hard to kill here. A few get their heads chopped off and yet their bodies still lumber around (which results in a terrific line from a deputy on his first encounter with one), and I can’t remember if any of them are actually downed for good. Luckily our “hero” has a lot of duct tape due to his serial killing habit, and so he tapes one to the ground from head to foot – a hilarious and unique sight gag. He is aided by a couple on the brink of separation; would-be victims who aid him in some minor zombie control but never truly side with him. I don’t know if it’s because he was so charming or if they were just poorly written, but I didn’t care much for these two; the girl wasn’t too obnoxious but the guy was just a lame and whiny pouter; the sort of guy who you'd meet through a mutual friend and not have the slightest understanding of why they continue to hang out with him.
And that’s pretty much it for characters; as I mentioned on twitter this movie is INCREDIBLY minimalist (I blew through all of my notes in the first two paragraphs!), and discussing too much of the story would basically be spoiler-y. I later learned that director Patrick Horvath was also one of the folks behind Entrance, which was another minimally plotted film that almost seemed like an exercise based on a random “What if?” question. So if that one was “is it possible to make a slasher film where the heroine never once leaves the frame?”, then this one would be “Can you do a zombie flick in a tiny diner with only three people?” I’d give both a tentative “Yes”, but also have to remind myself (and you guys) that it takes four years of watching a lot of unambitious and lazy trash to appreciate minor successes like this; 5 years ago I might have trashed both films on their (sigh) digital video presentation alone.
But I’m glad I saw Entrance first, because I would have been wary going in to see a movie “from the director of Die-ner” (which was shot before the former film). I assume that the cramped location (I’m 95% sure this was a real diner, not a set) limited the camera angles, but even in the exteriors the movie had very clunky and awkward blocking, with actors’ heads frequently out of frame or standing in a way that blocked most of our view of the angle. As the direction was one of the better things about Entrance, I’m happy to realize that he has improved in this department. It’s rare I see a 2nd film from a lot of these indie folks, it’s even rarer to realize they have enhanced their skill as filmmakers.
What say you?