When the subtext becomes text, fade into legend.
The themes in George A. Romero’s dependably great zombie films have always been deftly integrated into compelling narratives populated with semi-relatable characters; Romero may view the survival of the species as a lost cause, but, save for the bleak-as-hell Night of the Living Dead, his cynicism is very often tinged with a sliver of hope. Even in a world overrun with zombies, there may be a place for us. Somewhere. Somehow. We’ll find a new way of coexisting with the mindless.
Indeed, Romero’s Dead movies were growing progressively softer; after disposing of both main characters in Night, Romero saw fit to allow two of his quarrelsome humans get away in Dawn. Three made it out alive in Day. Even more were headed northward from the overrun Fiddler’s Green at the conclusion of Land. And that was kind of stunning; though America was headed into a dispiriting second go-round with George W. Bush, Romero gave humanity reasonable (for him) odds at (very marginal) survival. No matter how deep in the shit we get, there will at least be enough of us to keep the non-flesh eating portion of our species afloat. We shall persevere.
But if humanity’s to be meagerly furthered by the media savvy/obsessed contingent from Diary of the Dead, Romero’s content to let it all fall apart. “These fucking kids and their need to document every moment of their lives… they’re just inventing new and more virulent lies!” Romero lived through the obfuscation of the Vietnam War; he’s well versed in the fallacy of truth. And what he sees is an impossible landscape of irresponsible reportage from an increasingly solipsistic generation; they’re chasing relevance, not enlightenment.
In other words, Romero’s Diary of the Dead is loaded with vitriol and stripped clean of empathy. It’s a screed, not a metaphor. And while it’s nice to see Romero’s passion burning through the material, all that’s left in the end are the cinders of a promising concept. This isn’t some half-assed Cannibal Holocaust/Blair Witch Project riff; Romero’s using the gimmick to ponder the value and mutability of the image in an age when every significant event is covered via digital cameras and cellphones. But the director doesn’t trust his audience to work out his message, so he debases his characters with irrational behavior and ham-fisted dialogue. It’s a burden his cast of unknowns can’t shoulder, which causes the picture to quickly collapse into a heap of silliness.
Diary of the Dead‘s most interesting twist is that it’s told by two unreliable narrators: the film student, Jason Creed (Joshua Close), who exhaustively covers every last second of the zombie onslaught, and his girlfriend, Debra (Michelle Morgan), who’s edited his footage into a documentary. Basically, this is the latter’s final word on the former’s selfish grandstanding – which, along the way, jeopardizes everyone around him. Creed is so singleminded in his efforts to get it all down for posterity that you wonder why the rest of the group – comprised of the cast and crew from the low-budget mummy movie he’s been shooting – don’t just throttle the prick. From the moment the characters learn of the zombie outbreak on the set of the film (which Creed’s professor praises for its “underlying thread of social satire”), there’s an unshakable sense that Romero is simply using them as pawns in his grumpy old harangue. It’d be one thing if the director were diving headlong into a formalist deconstruction of his own contributions to the horror genre, but after a few brief moments of levity at the outset, that’s all gone once the characters hit the road. The form is beholden to all the conventions of classical narrative storytelling.
What’s most disappointing about Diary‘s dramatis personae is that they feel as if they’ve been plucked out of a random slasher film. To Romero’s credit, he doesn’t dispatch them with the clockwork predictability of those films, but, at the same time, I think I had a greater emotional stake in the well being of the characters from Friday the 13th Part IV. And this is especially problematic when Debra arrives home to reunite with her family, only to find that they’re feasting on each other. This should’ve been a devastating moment, but there’s nothing to be felt because she’s little more than a type.
After a while, it’s impossible to put your finger precisely on what it is that’s pissing off Romero this time out; there’s definitely some residual fury at the obliviousness of the rich left over from Land of the Dead (the final act strands the survivors at the eerily deserted mansion of a wealthy classmate), but it doesn’t sync up with the diatribe against our media saturated culture. The same goes for Romero’s ill-advised attempt to work in the race angle; he has nothing new to say here, and, worse, fails to present the conflict in a realistically confrontational manner.
The ideas are crammed in and blurted out so artlessly that you don’t want to accept that this is a George A. Romero zombie film. But it is. The winning streak ends at four.