Diary of the Dead disappoints… by being too good. How’s that for a weird critique?
If Land of the Dead was George Romero’s post-9/11/Iraq War zombie movie, Diary is his flat out 9/11 film. It’s back to the night of the living dead, except it’s taking place today. The world is obviously a very different place forty years after Romero first raised the dead, and one of the biggest differences is mass communication. Cell phones, wireless internet, 24 hour news channels – the way we experience and learn about a disaster has changed in huge ways. And it’s Romero’s genius to see this and get it in a very fundamental, simple way.
Sadly, he doesn’t get it as a filmmaker. The premise of Diary – a group of film students documenting the local aspects of the global zombie crisis, and the movie is their footage – is fantastic on paper. But Romero is too old school to see his idea through to completion. Rather than create a verite experience, one that feels like a couple of students with video cameras are in the middle of a zombie pandemic, he’s made a movie movie, albeit one where characters keep talking to the camera. The movie looks too good, is too slickly edited, is too scripted, to ever feel real. And when the whole premise is botched this badly, the audience continuously and rudely gets yanked from the experience of the movie.
What’s especially annoying and strange about Diary of the Dead is how didactic and ham-fisted it is. Romero’s never been the subtlest guy – even as an 11 year old I understood the subtext of Dawn of the Dead (possibly my favorite movie ever, by the way) more or less completely – but in Diary he has characters deliver what amount to sermons, stating the thesis of the movie again and again. What’s sort of insulting about this is that at the beginning of Diary the film students are making a mummy movie, and someone makes a crack about there being a satirical social message under all the bandages and gore (he also uses this opportunity to take a swipe at the fast zombie phenomenon). Diary of the Dead first points out that it’s going to have a social message (in this case it’s about the democratization of information) and then it goes on to actually state that message to you two or three times.
Does Romero think his audience is stupid? Maybe – this is the first Dead film with an all-youngster cast (almost all – there is a soused teacher with the group of kids), and I wonder if Romero wasn’t aiming very specifically at a youth market with this one. It’s too bad, since one of the best things about the Dead films is that they’re cast like they’re movies for grown ups, not for 14 year olds headed to the theater to canoodle for an hour and a half. I’m not especially against the concept of a Romero Dead film that deals with college students – their zombie problems are just as legitimate as anyone else’s! – but the blandly attractive group that Romero has assembled could just as easily be getting knocked off in Final Destination 4. The Dead films had working class faces in them; the people in these movies were people you might recognize, or who might be you. Who identifies with the acne cream commercial starring camp counselor cast of a Friday the 13th film?
You do have to give it up to Romero when it comes to making the situations in a zombie film fresh. Who else would show us an Amish guy coping with an undead crisis? And Romero works with Greg Nicotero to come up with some surprising and creative kills for zombies, which feels almost miraculous. But here again the old fashioned filmmaker in Romero comes out – every frame of this movie is supposed to be footage caught on the fly by students, but every kill manages to be gloriously framed for the best view. With each great looking, perfectly photographed kill my disbelief gets less and less suspended.
Romero needed to look at the film that has defined this little genre, The Blair Witch Project. It’s not a movie I am fond of, but you have to admit that the movie manages an admirable feeling of reality. The actors in Diary speak Lines Of Dialogue, and they deliver them like actors in a C grade horror movie. Simply letting his cast improv would have made a major different for Romero, but again the fact that he didn’t shows that he’s an old-fashioned filmmaker flirting with a style he doesn’t comprehend fully. It doesn’t help that the dialogue is so often putrid and insipid and all too willing to draw boring and obvious and overly verbose parallels between the shooting of a gun and the shooting of a camera. Characters speak the film’s themes aloud again and again, and you feel like Romero is shaking your shoulder saying, ‘Do you get it, son? Do you see where I’m going with this? Do you understand the subtext here? Do you see, do you see?’ It’s another aspect that removes the film another huge, clumsy step from its basic formal conceit.
It’s a pity, because if Diary had been done truly verite, it would have been amazing – even with the CW soap opera reject actors. If Romero had realized that he didn’t have the commitment to make the film realistically and had just made a movie with the same premise, told from an objective viewpoint, Diary would still have been a pretty good film. But the abject failure of form drags the movie down more and more. Maybe armed with the knowledge of how this film stumbles will soften the edge during future viewings, but there will never be a time when Diary of the Dead is anything but the worst and most seriously disappointing of all the Dead movies.