You’ve probably heard wrong information about Diary Of The Dead, so let’s do some bookkeeping. Yes, the film is George Romero’s dramatized recreation of the outbreak of his zombie plague. No, it is not a Blair Witch clone. Instead, Romero has made a film that resembles post-modern novels like House of Leaves and Cloud Atlas, as the footage is intended to look like it was created by students, found on YouTube and television, and captured by security cameras.
Re-using my opening from Redacted is putridly un-clever, isn’t it? But I can’t help it. Both share formal similarities, and some of the same problems. I have less trouble qualifying why I like Diary, however. Romero has made a very entertaining, occasionally quite clever addition to his zombie vision. It’s gory, funny and eager to break out of the mold created by the man himself almost forty years ago.
As was the case with Land of the Dead, you’ll have to get past a couple stumbling blocks. The acting is about as smooth and even as a gravel road, and the script isn’t always as sharp as the scythe that gets shoved into one zombie’s face. As for cutting edges, Romero isn’t quite riding one; Blair Witch clone or not, the film’s conceit is old, and adding YouTube is merely applying a patch.
Most people will be happy to know that Diary actually distances itself from Blair Witch in one important aspect: the visuals are not exclusively, or even predominantly the product of severe shaky cam. Motion sickness should not result, and the film often looks better than Land of the Dead.
Student filmmaker Jason has dragged a skeleton crew out to the woods to make a horror film, a mummy story. It’s a small group, with Jason’s teacher inexplicably present. The sound man hears news of the zombie outbreak over the radio, and the crew quickly flees the woods looking for shelter and means of survival.
As the horror intensifies, Jason refuses to put down the camera. He insists upon documenting the fall of humanity, and though his friends (particularly his girlfriend) scorn his attitude, eventually they too pick up camcorders. There are encounters with other survivors, like an all-black impromptu militia and the Funniest Amish Man On Earth, and obviously zombies aplenty.
When I reviewed Skinwalkers, I was afraid that Shawn Roberts was going to be Diary‘s undoing, but he’s not bad. Granted, the median level of acting here is exactly that — a median, with few outstanding performers. Michelle Morgan, as Jason’s girlfriend Debra and one of the film’s prime movers, makes a strong if not particularly compelling heroine. The rest of the student crew has a few strong moments each and a lot more where they’re just keeping head above water.
It’s Romero’s vision that undermines the film this time. His approach is hardly unique, and as his discussions of media and the desire to speak truth to power grow fully overt, his arguments seem weak and obvious. He makes relevant observations here and there about the power of media being diluted by the ever-widening stream of voices. But elsewhere there’s a lot more tell than show, and I’d trade a few good kills for a script that spent less time talking about the equation between camera and gun. There’s one incident towards the end where a character says ‘shoot me’ and you’ll either love or hate the response. (I liked it, for the record.)
Like Redacted, Diary could be more powerful with a less linear approach. In fact, that would serve Romero far better than De Palma. Cutting the story’s events in a classic linear fashion might be the way an untrained filmmaker would work, following the film’s conceit, but Romero should perhaps not stick so close to his concept. Diary features endless opportunity for gore, obviously, but it could have scored a lot more scares with a less direct approach.
The necessity of keeping a camera in someone’s hand at all times becomes overt and silly more than once. The first time is during an early visit to a hospital. Most of the cast goes running off leaving Jason behind. He stays alone because his camera battery is dead and he won’t cut the tether to the wall outlet or walk off without the camera. It’s embarrassingly forced, and unfortunately there are a couple other similar scenes.
And in the end, this isn’t as much of a break from Romero’s other movies as it might have been. There’s still a ragtag group of people running from zombies, getting picked off and encountering the good, the bad and the ugly parts of humanity. The humans in this film aren’t as aggressively awful as in some of Romero’s other movies, and that’s not a minor point when you look at the broad spectrum of his material. But putting cameras in the hands of onscreen characters doesn’t much change the classic Romero equation. It just allows different staging options.
Looking back at what I’ve written, I seem like I’m a lot more down on this movie than I really feel. I had a great time watching it — Diary is a lot of fun. It’s obvious entertainment, yes, but there’s no crime there. I laughed a lot while watching it, mostly with the film, occasionally at it. Jason’s professor delivers a lot of terribly over the top dialogue about power and alcohol, but I get the idea that Romero wants you chuckling at him one way or the other.
I didn’t even mind the largely digital gore because it
delivered some sights I’d never seen before. If there’s a place where
Romero’s imagination is undimmed, it’s in ways to disassemble the body,
particularly from the neck up.
I’m thrilled that Romero is once again working independently, and he’s turned out a respectable film on a small budget. But Diary could have used more time to cook; it’s an ambitious idea that turns into a pretty slight, if diverting hour and a half. With Night, Dawn and even Day of the Dead as priors, however, that’s not always enough.