At one point in Diary of the Dead (2007), George Romero’s fifth official “Dead” film, one of the characters wonders what compels us to stare at an accident but not offer assistance: we’ve become a society of cold, removed observers, she notes, as dead on the inside as the walking corpses that relentlessly hunt the living. It’s a thought-provoking observation and one that seems especially prescient in this era of social media and “cellphone journalists.” These days, Good Samaritans appear to be a thing of the past, concert-goers watch bands through their phones while standing three feet from the stage and the general public can receive nearly 24/7 celebrity updates via Twitter, Instagram, etc. Technological advancements have made it so that humans are more inter-connected than at any previous point in our history: never before has it been more possible for complete strangers on opposite sides of the world to “talk” than it is now. This, of course, makes it even more puzzling when close friends sit next to each other and text rather than, you know…speaking: never before have we been more connected yet simultaneously unplugged from the “real world.”
Like all of his “Dead” films, Romero’s Diary of the Dead is anything but a straight-forward zombie flick: Romero, after all, was the guy who inserted social commentary into the very DNA of the zombie film all the way back in 1968 with the incendiary Night of the Living Dead, taking on race relations, global unrest and the Vietnam War with equal aplomb. The follow-up, Dawn of the Dead (1978), took the very notion of consumerism and capitalism to task as survivors of the global zombie epidemic hole up in an abandoned shopping mall and live like royalty while the mindless flesh-eaters gather en masse outside the gate like so many rotting barbarians. Day of the Dead (1985) further explored Romero’s fascination with the notion of “evolving” zombies, as the undead gained more human attributes even as the actual human characters descended into a cartoonish maelstrom of prejudices, misplaced rage and violent tendencies. Romero followed up Day of the Dead twenty years later with the action-oriented Land of the Dead (2005), which tackled the eternal war between the haves and the have-nots, with the rich barricaded away from the world in a literal ivory tower before being turned into a smorgasbord by the living dead.
With Diary of the Dead, Romero takes an unflinching, if achingly obvious, look at the world of media and journalism, particularly the “infotainment” that has replaced our formerly unbiased news coverage as of late. Jason Creed (Josh Close), the student filmmaker at the heart of Diary’s storyline, has a very simple reason for being so compelled to finish his documentary about the zombie crisis, “cleverly” entitled “The Death of Death”: he wants to make sure that the truth makes it out there, somehow, amidst all the “conventional news resource bullshit.” In an era where it can sometimes be difficult to make out any individual voices, thanks to the excess of information bombarding us from every angle, Jason wants to be the voice of truth, a beacon in the wilderness: that he’s willing to constantly put himself and his friends in harm’s way to do so might make him some sort of martyr…or it might make him just as dangerous as the shuffling dead that continue to pop up everywhere.
Utilizing a found-footage aesthetic for the first time in the franchise’s history, Romero throws us right into the middle of the zombie apocalypse and gives us a front-row seat to the chaos, thanks to Jason’s unblinking camera and the host of other media (cell-phone videos, security cameras, news broadcasts) that help fill in gaps in the story. In some ways, Diary of the Dead serves as a kind of prequel to the other films (albeit one with a very different timeline), since it purports to show the period of time right after the dead begin to overtake the living. This ends up putting it in roughly the same time-period as Dawn of the Dead (1978), although the action has been wholesale moved forward about 30 years, which must certainly be the cost of doing business with a series that first kicked off in 1968.
As Jason and the rest of his film-crew, including Tony (Shawn Roberts), Ridley (Philip Riccio), Francine (Megan Park) and Eliot (Joe Dinicol) are out in the woods shooting a low-budget mummy epic (along with their film professor, Prof. Maxwell (Scott Wentworth)), reports begin to pour in about the dead returning to life and attacking the living. After opting to abandon his school project in lieu of turning his camera on the events around them, Jason leads his group back to their school so that he can meet up with his girlfriend, Debra (Michelle Morgan, whose voice-over narration quickly wears out its welcome). Everywhere they turn, however, there seems to be nothing but mounting danger. To make matters even hairier, the students notice that news broadcasts of the events are now being edited and given particular spins, slants which have nothing to do with disseminating the truth and everything to do with pushing forward an agenda.
Tension rises within the group, however, when Jason’s constant filming begins to wear on everybody: at one point, he even stays with his camera as its charging while the rest of his group are off trying to save one of their own. For Jason, his documentary is the only thing that matters now, a time-capsule that can explain the disaster to whoever manages to follow them. The rest of the group, however, tend to see things a bit differently: to them, Jason is hiding behind his camera in order to avoid facing the terrible reality that surrounds him. “There will always be people like you who want to document,” Prof. Maxwell scoffs at one point, venom dripping from every syllable. Even Debra begins to take her boyfriend to task, arguing with him about his unceasing focus on filming above and beyond everything else, including their personal safety. As the group begins to fracture and splinter, they all agree to make their way to the supposed safety of Ridley’s luxurious house. When they get there, however, they discover that their nightmare isn’t winding down: it’s just beginning.
Unlike Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead is a distinctly more horror-driven enterprise, lacking the over-the-top action setpieces and overwhelming firepower of the fourth film while returning to the social commentary of the second film. On the surface, this would seem to make Diary a better “Dead” film than Land but, alas, that’s not necessarily the case. The acting here, for the most part, is a decided step down from the previous film, bringing us dangerously close to the over-the-top thespianism of Day of the Dead. The zombie elements, while well-done, almost seem a bit perfunctory, although there are two suitably gruesome setpieces involving a barbecued State Trooper and jar of acid to a zombie’s acid, respectively, that are pretty damn impressive. As with Land of the Dead, Greg Nicotero handled the zombie fx, which lends this a similar look, if on a decidedly lower budget.
One of the biggest issues with Diary of the Dead ends up being its highly melodramatic and constantly hectoring tone: so much of the film seems to devolve into amateurish young actors shouting at each other and sticking cameras in their faces that it sometimes has the feel of a student production, which is rather ironic considering the storyline. Michelle Morgan and Josh Close, in particular, get rather difficult to take seriously by the end since they’re both so damn intent on proving how serious they are: Debra’s voiceover is a constant presence in the film and, while it may deliver the occasional thought-provoking whopper (such as the aforementioned bit about modern folks and their detachment), it’s just as often prone to deliver ennui and vaguely revolutionary talk that does nothing but detract from the visual aspect of the film.
Unlike previous efforts like Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead (or even Land of the Dead, for that matter), the “message” in Diary of the Dead is right upfront and constantly shoved in the audience’s face: mainstream media is nothing but bullshit fear-mongering and independent news sources, whether individuals with cell-phones or underground agencies, are the only source for truth in an increasingly confusing world. It’s a great, valid message, one that I (personally) couldn’t agree more with. On the other hand, Romero is so heavy-handed with the message, so constantly “on-point” that it becomes wearing, after a while: the film is kind of like a street-corner preacher with an apple-box and a megaphone, shouting at passerby as they try to scurry away.
Where Diary really exceeds, surprisingly enough, is as a found-footage film. Romero addresses many of the inherent issues with found-footage films (added music/effects, unknown camera angles, constant filming during stressful situations) throughout the course of the movie and comes up with some rather reasonable twists on the formula. The film also handles its morbid humor in a more subtle way than Land of the Dead, recalling the drier tone of films like Night of the Living Dead or Day of the Dead. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention that the final scene of the film is amazingly powerful, easily the equal of the iconic final moments of the original Night of the Living Dead. It has the quiet horror, subtle irony and terrible beauty that has always marked the best of Romero’s work, whether zombie-related or not…it’s a purely cinematic moment and, without a doubt, the strongest in the entire film. Were there more moments like the final image, perhaps my ultimate opinion on Diary of the Dead would be a bit more positive. As it stands, however, I always find myself a bit disappointed by this film: any Romero is a good thing, of course, but I can’t help but wish for a return to the glory days.