George A Romero’s Diary of the Dead
I’m not a huge horror fan. Freddy, Jason, little Asian girls that have weird eyes or come out of walls, they do nothing for me. I do however enjoy the few really well done horror movies that I’ve seen. These includes Neil Marshall’s ‘The Descent,’ and Danny Boyle’s ’28 Days Later’ to name a few. But even if you don’t particularly like the genre, who can resist a zombie movie from the grandfather, nay, the god and creator of the zombie genre itself? George Romero released the fifth chapter of his Dead series, ‘Diary of the Dead,’ last year. You certainly don’t have to be familiar with the Romero zombie cannon to enjoy this.
Filmed on an extremely modest budget of approximately $2,000,000, the film ran the festival circuit with showings at Sundance, Toronto, Vienna, and several others. Critics seem to like it. Rottentomatoes gives it a 61% approval rating, and a top critics rating of 67%. Those reviews are here. Respected critics such as Peter Travers of Rollingstone claim ‘Diary’ is a ‘leader in the scare pack.’ My first viewing of this film was at the Sundance Film Festival in January of this year. It’s now available on DVD so I rented it to enjoy a second time. This time I saw the movie in a different light.
There are several aspects of the film that are excellent. For one, it’s filmed gonzo style, like ‘The Blair Witch Project,’ or ‘Cloverfield.’ It’s extremely effective in adding realism. The plot follows a group of film students as the dead start to wake up and attack the living. All shots are filmed with hand cams giving it the feel of a documentary. The students take a road trip from Pittsburgh to Pennsylvania where the majority of the group comes from. Unlike most zombie movies, there’s no back story. No one tries to explain how the undead are walking the streets, they are just trying to live through this horrifying experience they don’t understand. The actors are unknowns, unrecognizable which helps the realism as the viewer can see himself in the story.
But as the movie goes on, it gets more and more self-indulgent and preachy. Romero condemns those that are obsessed with filming and/or watching the suffering of other people. Clips of real world events are thrown in (Darfur, the Iraq War) to hit the point home and the dialogue frequently turns to how disgusting it is that one student refuses to set his camera down, even to help his super bitchy girlfriend when she’s shaken up because her 13 year old undead brother attacks her. Those unaffected by the the zombie disease tie up the zombies and torture them for fun, and we hear the narrator do a voice over, ‘are we worth saving? You tell me.’ WE GET IT. Yeah, we like to film stuff, to watch people suffer, that’s why I have CNN, MSNBC, MSNBC Headline News, FOX News and TMZ. That’s why I spend hours surfing Youtube. As one of the character reminds us, ‘For you, if it’s not caught on film, it didn’t happen.’
What happened to the subtle metaphor? Why does Romero feel like he has to spell it out for us? Look! They’re torturing innocent zombies. Since those people represent us…we must be guilty too! Thanks Romero! I get it now. Youtube is evil and I should spend more time raising money for Rwanda.
Despite the tired political and social commentary, the movie does have it’s flashes of ghoulish inspiration. The opening news sequence is down right disturbing. The run in with the deaf Amish man Samuel, who enjoys blowing up the oncoming zombies with his homemade dynamite is pure entertainment. There’s a reason great writers and directors like Quentin Tarantino and Stephen King recognize Romero as a master, but this film isn’t one of those reasons.