There's a difference between a genuine artist and a filmmaker who cares about what people think of him, and prime examples of both are currently playing. First we have Alejandro Amenabar's Agora (7 screens); it's his first release after he won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. This new one is about the search for knowledge during the rise of Christianity in 4th Century Egypt. Then we have George A. Romero's Survival of the Dead (8 screens), the sixth in his ongoing series of zombie movies, which has received mainly bad reviews. So which of these two directors is the genuine artist? Wrong!

Amenabar started out with three very good genre films, Tesis (1996), Open Your Eyes (1997), and The Others (2001). They all contained some really interesting horror and sci-fi ideas and they were enough to get genre fans excited about him, marking him as a director to watch. But instead of following up with another horror or sci-fi film, he made The Sea Inside (2004), which is essentially a "disease-of-the-week" film, the kind of film that usually gets called "brave" and "powerful," but that nobody really wants to see. It told the story of a quadriplegic who wants to die despite the fact that he has just published a book of poetry, and has beautiful women fawning over him at every moment. It's basically an issue movie about the right to die, and doesn't much care about characters or ideas; it won an Oscar.

Basically Amenabar did not want to get himself pigeonholed as a horror or sci-fi filmmaker; we've seen the same scenario hundreds of times with other filmmakers. He tried to break out of that mold in the most obvious way possible; he appealed directly to the Oscar voters. Now, six years later, he has discovered that an Oscar does not buy happiness and he must continue. So he has made another issue movie, which is slightly better than the previous attempt, but nowhere near as interesting or full of enthusiasm as his genre films.

Now, take Romero. He, too, tried to break out of the horror genre many years ago with a drama called There's Always Vanilla (1971), but no one cared. It barely got distributed and no one saw it. Since then, he has embraced his status as a horror or a genre filmmaker, and he has done his level best to work within those confines with as much creativity and as much intelligence as he can muster. Very often, he's far ahead of the critics of the time, and though masterpieces such as Martin (1977) and Day of the Dead (1985) were mostly ignored or panned in their day, both have come to be appreciated as masterworks.

So it's not terribly surprising that Survival of the Dead has not met with critical approval, but I suspect that in time, it will be seen as another of his uniquely personal films, brimming with his own ideas. What's very strange is that most fans I've spoken to prefer Survival to the previous film Diary of the Dead, which received mostly good reviews. How can this be? It's merely a matter of timing and publicity; it has nothing to do with Romero's skill. But in the case of Amenabar, he deliberately backtracked and tried to imagine what his audience would want, not what he himself might have wanted. This betrayal of self makes him a far less interesting artist than Romero. And not one or even ten Oscars can change that.
CATEGORIES Columns, Cinematical