It’s back to basics for zombie maestro George A. Romero with Diary of the Dead—in more ways than one. After the relatively large budget of Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead is bare-bones filmmaking. But more than that, rather than extending the story that began in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead, this film recreates the basic story from the ground up in present-day terms.
The results—while somewhat uneven—make Diary the chilling and relevant film Land tried to be, but never quite was. While Romero wasn’t off target in terms of satirizing modern society’s class structure and the whole gated-community mindset in Land, the film went off the rails by trying to make its zombies into quasi-sympathetic creatures. As I noted at the time, “the film cannot make a persuasive case for coexisting with creatures whose primary goal in ‘life’ is to eat you.” Thankfully, Diary doesn’t repeat that approach.
The premise this time around has a group of film students who, while working on a low-rent mummy movie, suddenly find themselves involved in the real-life horrors of a world in which the recently dead are returning to lurching “life”—with an attendant voracious appetite for the living. The setup is a little clunky. It’s hard to believe in a group of modern film students trying to dust off one of the least viable of all movie monsters: the reanimated mummy. But Romero’s out to take a swipe at the Danny Boyle breed of fleet-footed zombies, while attempting to justify his shambling breed of living dead. Romero’s director-hero in Diary cautions the student mummy portrayer to slow down, telling him that if such a creature moved fast, he’d snap an ankle.
Fortunately, this bout of self-justification is quickly overtaken by the major thrust of the film, which both adopts and reinvents the ethos of The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield approach to filmmaking. It’s interesting and instructive to see the shaky-cam/found-footage concept in the hands of an old pro—especially an old pro from the 16mm guerilla filmmaking school of 40 years ago. Romero proves at once that this old dog can teach the new pups a thing or three. There’s just as much immediacy to his approach, but a lot less mal de mer. What’s going on is almost always clearly understandable, and the camerawork is ragged without being ridiculously so.
Romero ups the ante by including two cameramen in the story (which, after all, centers on a group of film students), adds in news footage, cell-phone-camera footage and images from a surveillance system—and then presents the film as an edited, finished work. In other words, he presents the kind of best-effort professional-looking product that old-school guerilla filmmakers strove for, and in the process creates something more dramatically viable than the approach has heretofore accomplished—and all without the need for Dramamine.
Not surprisingly, the results have not met with anything like universal acclaim—especially from admirers of Blair Witch and Cloverfield. Make of that what you will, though I suspect what’s really bothering some of these folks has more to do with Romero’s insistence on holding up a mirror to the media- and communication-saturated generation that his film focuses on, especially since he doesn’t present an exactly flattering picture. If, as has been claimed, Cloverfield was the first film made for the YouTube generation, then Diary of the Dead can be said to be the first film made about the YouTube generation.
Romero seems to view this generation as one that has become so immersed in the Internet-cellphone-videography-text-messaging realm of human interaction that they’ve removed themselves from genuine human contact. They’ve isolated themselves in an ever-expanding—yet contracting—universe where reality isn’t real until it’s been recorded on video and uploaded to the Internet, in which realm its actual emotional impact can be kept safely at arm’s length. It can be argued that Romero’s film is, in this regard, the crusty response of a 67-year-old man to a culture he understands no better than 67-year-olds of 40 years ago understood the culture Romero was a part of with Night of the Living Dead. Regardless, it doesn’t make the subtext of Diary any less pertinent or worthy of actual debate. And I’m not seeing much debate—merely anger and dismissal by young posters on message boards.
Interestingly, there’s little outrage over Romero’s horror content and not much more over the overtly political content that parallels the apocalyptic events in Iraq, though his less than reverent take on the National Guard has taken a few hits. Maybe the latter is because viewers familiar with Romero’s work expect the political stance, since it’s been there from the beginning and isn’t much different than it was in 1968. But isn’t that a comment in itself? Isn’t it disturbing that 40-years passage finds things much the same or even worse? When the film gets to its obviously Abu Ghraib-inspired final image and the question of whether or not we’re worth saving, the abyss seems to be dangerously close. As such, Romero’s film is heavy—and frankly depressing—stuff, but it’s a work that deserves examination and merits discourse, not casual dismissal. Rated R for strong horror violence and gore and pervasive language.