Posted on March 2, 2009 by Jason Thorson
George Romero’s Diary of the Dead (2007) is a lot like Jell-o to my cinematic palette; that’s to say there’s always room for more zombie flicks from the man who invented them.
Diary tells the tale of a group of film students and their professor from the University of Pittsburg as they shoot a “mummy” movie in rural Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, a zombie plague breaks out, quickly spreading around the world. The cadre of survivors packs up their film equipment and hits the road in search of sanctuary from the pending apocalypse. They soon turn their equipment toward the unfolding catastrophe, documenting it on the fly and posting it online.
This movie is much less a zombie flick and much more Romero’s exploration of whether or not there’s a point at which media, technology, and reality converge. And more importantly, if such a convergence exists, whether or not it’s distorted through the narrator’s implement of representation, whether that be the camera’s lens or the written word.
One term that describes Romero’s movie is “self-aware”. Diary of the Dead takes place both outside Romero’s original four part chronology and in a different film universe entirely. However, Romero references works that are derivative of his original zombie films, including World War Z and 28 Days Later as well as the remakes of the original films.
In doing so he humorously discusses the merits of his own rules, such as the limited speed at which the living dead can plausibly move, a rule that had been recently redefined by Romero’s devotees only to be reaffirmed here by Romero. He’s also self-deprecating at times as Diary’s film professor touts the “social commentary” contained in the ostensibly shallow mummy movie his film students are shooting.
Diary is mostly shot using the same first person POV convention popularized by The Blaire Which Project, perfected by Cloverfield, and imitated most recently by Quarantine. Only, in this case, Romero uses the narrative device because it’s entirely relevant to the larger concepts he’s exploring, rather than as a gimmick.
Unfortunately, this limited perspective lessens the impact of a zombie apocalypse. The terror of this scenario is directly correlated to the magnitude of its scope. It’s inherently more difficult to represent a huge zombie horde from the first person perspective than it is from the third person perspective. Compared to Romero’s earlier films, the scale of the problems facing our protagonists and thus the scale of the movie itself seems a bit smaller than what’s optimal.
The acting here is better than the average horror fare, highlighted by Scott Wentworth’s role as Andrew Maxwell, the alcoholic film professor who’s fighting internal demons and zombies simultaneously.
There are enough zombie movie requirements in Diary to keep everyone satisfied despite the relative and peculiar lack of emphasis on zombies. There are still plenty of ballistic head shots and flesh-removing neck bites as well as a few inventive and nasty ways to dispatch the living dead.
Diary of the Dead is Romero’s vehicle to explore an issue outright rather than tell us a conventional story through film. His inclusion of the zombie mythos is just something he does, unapologetically and for the most part successfully. This movie doesn’t achieve the same standard set by the original trilogy, but it does manage to feel a bit less compromised than Romero’s fourth installment, Land of the Dead.
George Romero became known for making zombie movies that include an element of social commentary. After all these years it’s possible that he now makes social commentary movies that include an element of zombies. Either way, as long as he keeps making them, I’ll keep watching them.
3 out of 5 flames
Review by Jason Thorson