George A. Romero | 95 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | 18 / R
While making a horror movie in the woods, a group of friends hear news of the dead coming back to life. As they try to reach home, their aspiring documentary-maker director keeps his camera rolling, recording their encounters with the living dead…
After his first living dead movie, it took writer-director George A. Romero a full ten years to have a concept for a follow-up. Then it was seven years before he produced another, and then he skipped a decade entirely before he produced a fourth twenty years on. But it was only two years after that before he returned to the subgenre he’d spawned almost 40 years earlier.
The quick turnaround was thanks to Romero being inspired by the rise of ‘citizen journalism’ — that’s people who document events with mobile phone cameras and the like, telling their own alternative version of the news on blogs, YouTube, Twitter, and the rest. It gave him an idea for another of his zombie movies, which he rushed to make before anyone else could do it first. Too late, George: although he managed to get Diary of the Dead into festivals in 2007, its wider cinematic release came after Cloverfield, the high-profile big-budget version of Romero’s concept that’s rather kickstarted a whole found-footage subgenre. And anyway, both of them owe a clear debt to a film released eight years earlier, The Blair Witch Project.
I liked Cloverfield, and Blair Witch. I don’t object to found-footage as a genre when it’s done well. Diary of the Dead is… well, it’s a funny one. It marks Romero’s return to independent feature making, after producing Land of the Dead for a major studio, but he perhaps went a little too independent: with a clear low-budget ethic and a cast of unknown actors, criticism from some quarters that this is little better than a Syfy TV movie are not without basis. And the technological aspect is already beginning to feel dated after just six years (people use MySpace!), so goodness knows how it’ll look after even ten. Thing is, despite all that, Diary still has one ace up its sleeve: it’s written and directed by George A. Romero.
What does that mean, then? Well, it means clear social commentary, as usual. Some people say that’s not as subtle as it used to be — again, as usual. Romero’s targets this time are the news: how the mainstream media lies to us, and how we’ve turned to alternative sources. But he’s also aware of the limitations of those alternatives: the lack of real-world contact, interacting with each other through cameras, phones and computers; processing the world not by going to see it but by watching it in little boxes on a screen.
In taking on this world, Romero has produced a movie that fits right in amongst it. Diary feels like it was made by some just-out-of-film-school kid rather than a 67-year-old moviemaking veteran. Romero is clearly a stylistic chameleon (as I noted on Land of the Dead), but that’s the surface sheen: the digital HD visuals, the syndicated-TV-level ability of the cast, the cut-price CGI… It’s also, sadly, sometimes the writing: the dialogue isn’t all it could be, and the characters are sketchy and archetypal — though, in fairness, that’s not unheard of from a Romero supporting cast. But, as ever, Romero adds his own spin by attempting to engage with social themes; not only those I’ve mentioned, but several more: “do we deserve to survive this?” is the closing note — again, taking on one of Romero’s pet subjects, the violence of humanity, against ourselves and others. Earlier in the film the military turn up, very briefly, but they are the opposite of all they should be. It’s not just that Romero hasn’t changed his views in 30 years or more, it’s that the world hasn’t changed either.
That said, the thematic concerns feel less resonant than in Romero’s previous work. The found-footage has led him to frame this as a film-within-a-film — the first title card reads The Death of Death, followed by one noting it’s “a film by Jason Creed”, the aforementioned aspiring director — complete with montages of news footage and, at times, a voice over narration. This rather rams the point home at times, over-explaining features that previously Romero would have allowed us to spot for ourselves. In some respects you can’t blame him being more obvious in this day and age — it needs to be on the nose to get through to some people — but it’s less satisfying, the blunt information coming across as a statement rather than asking us for our own interpretation, which I feel can lead to a more insightful analysis.
This is coupled with arguably a greater focus on action and gore than ever before. The first three films limit the majority of their violence to a final-act brawl — think Night’s trip to the gas pump/zombie break-in, the bikers in Dawn, the zombie break-in (again) in Day, the zombie, er, break-in in Land — but here we’re given a smattering throughout, with no all-or-nothing finale. That’s not a bad thing, but it makes it feel more pervasive — even more so than Land, which was an action-adventure movie through and through. Is Romero playing to his crowd, here? The ones who have always looked to his films foremost for their zombie-killin’ special effects; the ones who think Zack Snyder’s Dawn remake is superior to most/all of Romero’s films? (Seriously, those people exist.)
Such folks, and even genuine Romero fans, seem to have two major problems with Diary (aside from arguments about the acting, the storyline, or even the entire concept). First, the gore: where Land added CGI to the traditional mix, Diary’s almost exclusively courtesy of computer wizardry. That’s the age we live in: computer effects are so commonplace that they’re now the cheap and easy thing to achieve, rather than men with buckets of red food colouring and entrails from the local butcher. For me, it’s a mixed bag. I don’t think this is the worst CGI I’ve ever seen (unlike some commentators), but I do think it lacks the distinctive Romero feel — there’s none of his trademark eating of intestines, for instance, or the tearing a human in half that’s become a key visual in every film since Dawn. Perhaps that’s because of the realism angle? No one would film that; they’d turn away. Of course, when zombies get shot/beaten/etc, that’s different; that we can watch.
In fact, Romero kind of has his cake and eats it. There’s CG gore aplenty, and new and inventive ways to kill the zombies, but he still criticises that “violence for the sake of it” attitude, particularly in the film’s closing moments. He also takes pot-shots at fast-moving zombies and the treatment of women in horror films, but those are deserved, especially as they generate a laugh here. Nonetheless, said inventiveness is somewhat entertaining. There’s a particular good bit with an Amish man (the film’s best character) and a scythe, and another with a kid and a bow & arrow. I guess gorehounds will never be satiated by CGI, instead always moaning it looks cheap, but here at least it’s fine — doubly so for a film of such low budget.
The other problem bemoaned by fans is that this is a reboot, of sorts. Romero’s previous zombie films feature no recurring characters and don’t sit properly within the same timeline, but they nonetheless feature an evolution of the zombie epidemic: it spreads from a one-night issue in Night to a dragging problem in Dawn, to an all-consuming one by Day, in which we see the zombies gaining in intelligence, to the point where they consciously form an invading force in Land. But Diary scraps all that, going back to the start of the epidemic. It doesn’t remake Night — in fact, it handles a few things notably differently (in Night the radio and TV report factual and helpful information; in Diary, they obscure the fact the outbreak is even happening) — but it does disregard the development Romero had taken the undead through.
This may, then, be the time to mention that Romero doesn’t consider his films to be sequels, because each one starts with a new set of characters and tells a self-contained story. He has a point: consider any of the first four films in isolation and you’ll realise you don’t need to have seen the preceding movie(s) to follow them, they just don’t take the traditional move of starting from the birth of the zombie problem. This is perhaps most evident in Land: the sci-fi-esque dystopian world, born of ours but notably different, is the setting for dozens of movies; we’re used to jumping into that without three films’ worth of exposition on how we got from here to there. So if you choose to consider each film as a standalone, self-contained entity, Diary going back to the start doesn’t seem quite so odd. It’s even necessary for the film’s theme: the premise requires it to be set in a present-day we recognise that’s then transformed by the zombie epidemic, rather than a sci-fi future set post-Land.
But, nonetheless, the epidemic did develop and evolve across Romero’s previous films, and that’s been lost here. Maybe there’s nowhere further to go with it? I’m not convinced of that. Perhaps Romero will have another idea and get to tell that story someday in the future, leaving Diary (and Survival) as an aside to his once-a-decade continuing series.
I disagree with those who think Diary is without interest or merit — clearly, as I’ve gone on this long about it. Romero brings a class to the concept that a lesser director wouldn’t, but it’s also a concept a lesser director could have realised much of in a similar fashion. It’s unquestionably the weakest of Romero’s first five ‘Dead’ films, then, but that still leaves it notably better than many, many other contributions to the genre.
Part of Week of the Living Dead for Halloween 2013.