It would not be hyperbole to say that George Romero created the modern zombie movie genre. With his groundbreaking first film, Night of the Living Dead, George Romero created an idea whose light still flickers in our collective imaginations. The movie deals not only with reanimated flesh eating ghouls, but also with gender roles and racism. Not content to simply dream up an idea and turn it loose on the world, Romero refined and polished his vision in the original sequel, Dawn of the Dead, offering up a scathing condemnation of our American consumption society.
And most people think zombie films are about blood and brains.
Diary of the Dead is a low budget, return to roots project for George Romero. In this film he chronicles the beginning of a zombie apocalypse, similar in timing with the original “Night” film. The events have been brought up to date, taking place in a thoroughly modern world that includes hand held video cameras, blogging, and the internet. In Diary of the Dead Romero sets out to ask the question of how far has our society really come since 1968? For all of our technological advances, how different are we as a species?
Unfortunately, in three short paragraphs, I’ve managed to ask that question more eloquently than Romero does in the film itself. The biggest problem is that the film wears its low budget on its sleeves. The cinematography is okay, the story is simple but effective, but the script and the acting leave a lot to be desired.
The movie takes place in a first person perspective, similar to the Blair Witch Project or the more recent Cloverfield. Like those movies, the main character is some smarmy twat who, for whatever reason, won’t put the camera down regardless of the circumstances. This usually isn’t a big problem for me in these types of films, some suspension of disbelief is necessary in all films after all, but the execution of it in Diary left me cold. The characters are constantly reminding us that Jason, the main character, is still filming. They ask why but Jason never responds. In the first 12 minutes the fact that he is filming is directly referenced three times. This is the type of question best left to nitpicky audience members, not characters in the film. When a character blatantly asks this question, everyone watching the movie suddenly thinks “Yeah! Why is he still filming?” So much for suspension of disbelief.
Another example of this occurs in the opening moments of the film. A girl, whom I will now refer to as Exposition Jill, introduces herself, gives us some background about the zombie invasion, and then lets us know she’s edited together the footage we’re about to watch. Exposition Jill goes on to tell us about the guy filming the rest of the film. His name is Jason Creed. This guy is filming this documentary, “The Death of Death,” so that we will know the truth. Hooray. Filmmaker cliché number one and we’re less than five minutes in. Then, to top this little sequence off, Jill tells us she’s added music to some of the footage. She’s added music to scare us. I’m not paraphrasing. She says she deliberately added the music to scare us. To make us care about THE TRUTH (TM).
Come on, George. We’re not idiots. No one was going to say, “Hey, if this is supposed to be a documentary, where did the music come from?” Most people would happily explain it away to themselves as someone found the footage and doctored it up. No clunky expositional character required. The type of nitpicky person you’re trying to address with this explanation doesn’t deserve to be recognized. If someone is nitpicky enough to ask that question, hopefully everyone else in the room would tell them to shut up and just watch the movie. Instead, by addressing this issue head-on, the movie comes off as pompous and self-serving. Sorry George, but recognizing and calling attention to a gaping hole in the way you’ve chosen to present your story does not excuse said gaping hole.
P.S. 15 Minutes in and someone just mentioned Jason is still filming again. Awesome. I’m going to stop counting now.
Okay, nitpicking aside, this isn’t a bad movie. I definitely think the script could have used some tightening up, if only to avoid the issues listed above. The acting is on par for a low budget film, but no one is going to win any awards. The makeup zombie effects are fun and effective and Romero shows a real love for the genre he helped create. There’s a few real creative zombie dispatchings that were a welcome addition to the standard issue brain splattering head shots. One zombie gets bashed over the head with hydrochloric acid and we watch him stumble around as his skull dissolves. Another zombie gets lobotomized with an IV stand. A deaf Amish dude impales his own head with a sickle to off both himself and the zombie attacking him from behind.
That’s a new one on me.
And then, 26 minutes in, Douchey McTardathon’s camera runs out of battery and he separates from the group to plug it in. Yeah.
Moments of brilliance and moments of ridiculousness. A very unbalanced experience.
So from here, more stuff happens. There’s a fairly drawn out sequence with some paramilitary types that always seem to grace flicks in this genre. Some of what happens is pretty cool, some of it isn’t. The film’s message about our dependence on the media and technology is scathing in typical Romero fashion. The heavy handed commentary about our YouTube society, a society that would rather watch itself fall apart for entertainment value rather then lend a hand to help, will bludgeon you over the head like a sledgehammer. This is a stark contrast to the subtlety evident in Romero’s earlier works. The points made are perfectly valid and thought provoking, but this is a case of a film suffering for its message.
Oh, and yes. Like always, in the end, we’re the real monsters.
The Bottomline: The good outweighs the bad, but you’ll want to turn your brain off to get the most out of the film. Not a good sign for a film trying to deliver a social commentary. If you like Romero and have been jonesing for a zombie fix in the post-Land of the Dead world, you’re likely to enjoy it. Lord knows you’ll never see a big budget, studio produced Romero flick again, so take what you can get I say.