During his 40-year career, George A. Romero has made 17 films, five of which have been about the “living dead.” His last film, the 2005 “Land of the Dead,” had an uncharacteristically large budget, $15 million; a wide theatrical release; and starred several big names, including John Leguizamo, Dennis Hopper, Simon Baker, and Asia Argento. For his latest “zombie” film, “Diary of the Dead,” he decided to scale things back. His budget was only $2 million, had a very limited theatrical release, and contains no Hollywood stars. As far as aesthetics go, it still has a high-end look. The special effects makeup and violence are realistic, and often quite grisly. And with a few exceptions, the acting doesn’t suffer from lack-of-budgetitis, meaning the performers don’t feel as if they are reading off of cue cards. The problems with “Diary of the Dead” are much more than cosmetic.
The film is supposed to be a “documentary” that was filmed by Jason Creed (Joshua Close), a university film student, and completed and narrated by Debra Moynihan (Michelle Morgan), his girlfriend. The premise is that while Jason is in the woods with his friends – and alcoholic film professor (Scott Wentworth)- making a horror film, news breaks that the dead are returning to life and eating the living. Scared, everyone packs up, jumps into a Winnebago, and heads for home. Along the way, they run into a black militant group, a deaf Amish man, the National Guard, and lots and lots of hungry “zombies.”
As is characteristic of Romero’s films, “Diary of the Dead” contains social commentary. In fact, on the extras, the director said that he wanted to make a film that was timely, dealing with the fact that even though we have more people reporting on current events, we seem to know less and less. Rather than giving us “truth,” the talking heads simply give us more noise. Unlike most of Romero’s films, “Diary” is about as subtle with its message as a brick through the window, and many fans have bristled at its condescending and preachy tone. The British professor, who has an endless supply of alcohol, spends time philosophizing about war and man’s inhumanity to man right before he nails a zombie to the wall with an arrow. Can you say incongruous?
“Diary” appears to be “smart,” after all it’s a film of a documentary with another short film inside. And, as they did in “Scream,” characters sometimes comment on the conventions of horror. For instance, towards the beginning, while the students are making their horror film, the blonde, busty Texan (Amy Lalonde) asks why female victims always lose their shoes, fall down, and get their shirt ripped off. Later, while she’s being pursued by a zombie, she loses a shoe, falls down and gets her shirt ripped. Oh the irony. There’s also an early discussion about how fast zombies move – someone says that they have to move slowly otherwise their ankles will snap. This is undoubtedly, Romero’s own commentary on the faster moving zombies of more contemporary films.
The wit of “Diary” isn’t pervasive, unfortunately, and the film suffers from been-there-seen-that syndrome. The characters drive somewhere, encounter zombies, have to kill them, and then move on to the next attack; not exactly riveting stuff. Horror fans know that they have to suspend quite a bit of disbelief and accept the fact that characters will make only stupid decisions. And these characters do a lot of really stupid and unbelievable things. For instance, Jason becomes so obsessed with documenting the zombie outbreak, that even when his friends are getting attacked, he just keeps filming. Even though zombies are everywhere, the survivors leave doors open and their guard down. (One character takes a long hot bath and blow dries his hair.) And, somehow, even when society has imploded, Internet service is readily available, and survivors are riveted to MySpace, waiting for video upload. (Camera batteries also fully recharge in about 10 minutes, and guns have an endless round of bullets.) Romero should, perhaps, become a bit more familiar with technology.
As a non-Romero fan and a person who prefers horror films without zombies, I didn’t find “Diary” all that noteworthy. It didn’t say anything that hasn’t already been said about the media, so it wasn’t particularly profound; and although there were plenty of “kills,” none were particularly inventive. Complaints about Romero’s latest film will undeniably fall deaf on the ears of his die-hard fans; they seem to applaud anything he does. For the rest of the horror fans, let me say this – when the best thing about a zombie film is a deaf Amish guy who sticks around for about five minutes, you know you’re in trouble.
George A. Romero (director) / George A. Romero (screenplay)
CAST: Joshua Close … Jason
Scott Wentworth … Andrew Maxwell
Michelle Morgan … Debra
Joe Dinicol … Eliot Stone
Shawn Roberts … Tony Ravello
Amy Ciupak Lalonde … Tracy Thurman