If there’s one thing that unites almost the entirety of the notoriously disparate horror community, it seems to be the belief that George A. Romero, creator of the modern-day zombie movie, really fucked up with 2007′s Diary Of The Dead.
Is this a universally-held opinion? Of course not, there’s literally no such thing. But somewhere in the neighborhood of about 75% of the hard-core horror fans out there , including even some of Romero’s biggest boosters, either think this thing is an unmitigated piece of garbage or, if they’re feeling more generous, a regrettable misstep from a guy who maybe just doesn’t have “it” like he used to.
As is my custom, I’m here to say “pshaw” (or however you spell that) to all that. Diary Of The Dead is no masterpiece, to be certain, but not only is it nowhere near as bad as its sizable legion of detractors would have you believe, it’s actually a lot more relevant and insightful than the vast majority of the other “hand-held horrors” out there made by much younger, much more”with it”, but ultimately less talented filmmakers.
Essentially what Big George is doing here is going right back to the beginning of the entire zombie apocalypse — the first “Night,” if you will — and viewing it through a fresh and contemporary lens. Disenchanted with big-budget Hollywood moviemaking after “Land Of The Dead,” Romero wanted to go back to the basics — low budgets, inexperienced actors, new guys doing the gore FX, etc. He was yearning for his independence after spending a few years in the belly of the Hollywood beast, and figured (quite rightly, too, I might add) who better to re-examine the roots of the modern zombie phenomena than the guy who got the ball rolling in the first place?
So George headed for Canada with about three million bucks, a company of unknown actors, some raw but talented behind-the-scenes folks, and emerged with exactly what he was he was trying to make — a film that, for good and bad, has all the immediacy, earnestness, and yes, warts, of a first-time cinematic effort.
We’ll focus on the warts first, just to get them out of the way. The acting in this thing is uneven at best, atrocious at worst. Nobody involved in front of the camera has really achieved much career-wise, and there’s a good reason for that : there’s just not a single standout performance in the bunch. In fact, moments of genuine competence feel like a breath of fresh air, so entry-level is most of the thespian work on display here. Which isn’t to say that the majority of the performers are actively bad, but most are pretty clearly in the earliest stages of honing their craft.
Now let’s move on to the good. Most of the effects work, a mix of both live-action and CGI, is pretty solid for a movie with this sort of budget. The zombies seem menacing (and yes, George is still sticking with the slow-shufflers variety here, more power to him) and numerous gore effects are well and truly grisly. The cinematography is great, the location work is superb, and the atmosphere is both tense and realistic (as far as these things so).
What about the story, you ask? Well, as with all Romero films, this is a work of social commentary first and foremost and a horror film second. The zombies are largely there to serve as a grotesque mirror held up to our own selves, and more specifically to our societal obsessions. George’s target here is the “culture”of YouTube and other so-called “emerging media,” and what our insatiable appetite for instantly documenting everything says about us. It’s clear from the outset (because his surviving girlfriend says so) that the character who supposedly shot the “found footage” (and just how “found” a lot of this stuff really is just so happens to be one of the big questions this film is asking), a film student named Jason, is long since dead. His former lady-love has spliced the best of his work together, added in some music and what have you to give it a more “professional” feel, and the end result is her cobbled-together-on-a-computer tribute to her late beau.
As with other filmmakers who have gone down this road, this gives George as easy out in that a lot of the less-than-professionalism on display feels “right” since this supposedly isn’t the work of a skilled movie veteran. Fair enough. It also negates the need to explain everything that’s going on, because a group of film students out making a homemade movie who just so happen to stumble upon the opening rounds of an actual zombie invasion aren’t going to be in position to understand, much less explain to their audience, just what the hell is exactly happening and how it all came to be. We’ve seen this sort of intentional confusion as to what’s being portrayed on screen used as a plot contrivance/necessary short-cut around exposition in everything from The Blair Witch Project to Cloverfield to REC and its American remake Quarantine to the Paranormal Activity films to — well, you get the idea. The list is verging on the endless at this point.
What sets Diary Of The Dead apart from the other entrants into the not-really-homemade horror subgenre, though, is Romero’s eagerness to use the hand-held DIY craze as a way of commenting right back on said craze itself. Granted, subtlety has never been one of the man’s strong suits, and sometimes it feels like he’s hammering us over the head with his point that this sort of high-tech voyeurism and the desperate need to be noticed even as we’re supposedly the ones doing the noticing that it entails is ultimately of questionable (at best) value to humanity as a species. But hey, that sort of overzealous earnestness is exactly in line with what you’d expect from a first-time filmmaker determined to take the world by storm, rather than a 71-year-old (at the time) veteran of scary movies. Romero is tackling his material with gusto again, and training an decidedly youthful set of eyes on a story that’s pretty old by this point.
For good and bad, Diary Of The Dead (and for the most part it’s good), this feels like a flick made by a first-or-second-year film student with no money and his only his friends to serve as cast and crew who just knows in his heart that he can make a better zombie movie than the great George A. Romero. Even the ending is little more than a heavy-handed reprisal of the same point Romero himself made at the end of the original Night Of The Living Dead. And, of course, like all first-time efforts (even ones that aren’t real first-time efforts) it bites off way more than it can chew and its reach exceeds its grasp. But damn if it doesn’t pull it off against all odds enough to keep you watching. Oh, and it’s got a deaf Amish guy, so how can anybody really hate it all that much?
Diary Of The Dead is available on DVD and Blu-Ray on the Weinsteins’ “Dimension Extreme” label. It features the sort of essentially perfect widescreen picture and 5.1 sound you’d expect from a new release on a big label, and there’s a nice little “making-of” featurette included as well as a feature-length commentary track with Romero holding court with several of his cohorts from both sides of the camera that’s a damn interesting listen and never veers into the self-indulgent, self-congratulatory territory that so many new release commentaries do. It’s also playing intermittently on AMC over the next couple of weeks beginning tonight, where it’s being hosted by Big George himself, so that should make for a fun watch. Give it a try and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Hell, if it was the work of a a real, rather than fictional, first-time filmmaker, you’d probably find yourself saying this Jason guy has a pretty bright future ahead of him.