Diary of the Dead (2008)
by Steve Habrat
In 2005, George Romero finished off his zombie saga with a bit of a whimper with Land of the Dead. It was good to see him back in the genre he created, but it felt like he became a victim to CGI magic tricks. The film was a little too epic for it’s own good and when news came that he was going to restart his Dead franchise with a smaller, independent movie called Diary of the Dead, I was pretty excited to see what he would come up with. It was announced shortly after the news broke, that the film would be shot cinema-vérité style, opting for hand held camera work by one of the films characters over the traditional style of filmmaking. It made sense to this fan because Night of the Living Dead seemed to have traces of cinema-vérité influence within it. It would be small, tight, and focus on a smaller group of people once again facing off against the undead. They were college film students instead of ordinary folk and they would be waiting it out in an RV rather than an isolated farmhouse. Romero furthermore stated that the film would be taking place the same exact time as Night of the Living Dead did. How could you not be intrigued? The master is returning to his roots!
Diary of the Dead concerns itself with our recent discovery of online media and social networking. The characters in the film hover around their glowing computer screens to get the news, much like the desperate survivors did with the television in Night. They are also interested in getting out into the action, filming the carnage for the world to see so everyone knows the truth. Every leader and newscaster seems to be promising that everything is under control while the terrified students discover nothing but unrest and violence stampeding through the countryside. Diary is without question the first Dead film that was truly a disappointment. There are decent moments within the film, but it strayed too much from what made the original series great—the zombies. There are barely any zombies in the film. Romero argued that it was supposed to be more low-key than his hoard heavy Night, Dawn, Day, and Land. No one seems to have told Romero that the smaller scale here was actually ineffective.
Jason Creed (Played by Joshua Close) is making a mummy horror film with fellow students and their brooding professor. When one of the students, Elliot (Played by Joe Dinicol) declares that the news is bring in reports of the recently deceased returning to life, the students pack up into an RV and head back to campus to scoop up Jason’s stone-cold girlfriend Debra (Played by Michelle Morgan), who has barricaded herself into her dorm room. The group sets out to find their families and, well, find a safe place to wait out the situation. As they journey further out, they realize that things may truly be worse than the news is saying. They then decided to fight their way towards the home of their wealthy buddy Ridley (Played by Phillip Riccio) who has been hiding out since the news broke.
The first problem that any seasoned Romero fan will notice while watching Diary of the Dead is the amateurish acting and writing that plagues every scene. The film is loaded with clunky dialogue that is directed at the audience in such a way that it borderlines on lecture. Most of the gabbing comes from Debra, who consistently demands that Jason put down the camera and help out when the few zombies that make their way into the film attack. He keeps whining that they have to record the truth. Romero keeps asking us if letting others suffer all for a good story is worth it. Furthermore, can we live with ourselves for behaving this way? The film doesn’t ask this question subtly and it’s about as obvious as a hoard of zombies trying to pound their way into your home. What happened to the wily director who slipped in satire quietly? The acting is also distracting, clearly coming from a bunch of elementary actors who have not refined their talent. Michelle Morgan is groan worthy and the snappy blonde bombshell Texan Tracy (Played by Amy Lalonde), who always interjects in a cockamamie southern drawl “Don’t mess with Texas!” is downright embarrassing. I honestly couldn’t bring myself to like any of the characters that Romero puts at the center of the action. Jason was an okay character, but he can’t even hold a candle to the relatively unexciting Riley in Land of the Dead. Nerdy Elliot tries his damndest, but he is mostly reduced to hysterics.
Diary of the Dead does offer its fair share of promising set ups. A siege on Ridley’s mansion at the end that is filmed by surveillance cameras set up around the house is efficient. It shows glimmers of Night of the Living Dead and you won’t be able to help yourself to give a geeky fist pump for the nod. It will distract you from asking the question What does Ridley’s father do to earn his money and why do they NEED surveillance? It will also distract you from asking when they found the time to get the footage from the said cameras. There is, after all, a massive wave of zombies lurking outside. I should also mention the humorous run in with a deaf Amish man named Samuel. While holding up with Samuel and contemplating what to do next, the zombies make their move and the students have to make a quick departure. The way the sequence plays out is both disappointingly campy and strangely evocative of Night. The most disgraceful part of the film is the film professor Alexander Maxwell (Played by Scott Wentworth), who prefers a bow and arrow to a firearm. Romero seems to have forgotten what made Night of the Living Dead so unforgettable. Everything seemed real. The characters used what was around them and never pulled out a weapon as ludicrous as a bow and arrow. Could you imagine Ben using a rocket launcher to defend the farmhouse? The fact that this weapon is used in the film is a bit of an outrage.
I find myself troubled about Romero’s restart of his beloved franchise. Diary of the Dead is an interesting commentary of our obsession with social media and the deceiving nature of the news. Yet Romero seems out of his element here and a bit rushed. The Dead series always had long pauses between their releases. It was ten years between Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. It would be another six years until Romero would unchain Day of the Dead. Twenty long years filled the gap between Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead. Three years had passed since Land of the Dead played in mainstream theaters. Diary of the Dead did not have this luxury and found a zombified life on DVD and Blu-ray. Perhaps the coolest aspect of Diary is the cameos from Romero’s famous buddies, all who lend their voices to newscasters. Keep an ear out for Quentin Tarantino, Guillermo del Toro, Stephen King, Wes Craven, Tom Savini, and Simon Pegg. Diary is an underwhelming effort from a man who usually leaves us astonished. Diary of the Dead only nips the viewer. It never takes a bloody bite out of us. Grade: C+