With "Diary of the Dead," George A. Romero has retconned his zombie apocalypse series back to its beginnings, before the burdens of upping the scale in each installment backed things into tough-to-swallow scenarios like "Land of the Dead"’s fortress for the wealthy. In "Diary," it’s present day, the dead have just commenced with the rising and the munching and everyone else is willfully resistant to accept how bad things are becoming. There’s a guy, a girl, a few of their more edible friends and the end of the world — and, oh yes, a camera with which to record it all. The unpolished filmmaking techniques that gave 1968’s "Night of the Living Dead" the disconcerting air of a documentary have been traded in for new ones that explicitly signify the same — shaky camerawork, uncertain lighting and actors repeatedly shrieking at an unseen shooter to just put the damn camera down already. Like "Cloverfield" and chunks of "Redacted," "Diary of the Dead" channels its story through the lens of one of its characters, the mostly unseen Jason Creed (Joshua Close), a Pittsburg film student who’s directing a mummy movie out in the woods when everything goes to hell and, on the upside, provides him with some more compelling subject matter. Creed, a handful of fellow students and their hard-drinking British professor head out to find their families in the RV they were using for the production. We probably needn’t tell you the trip doesn’t go well.
Aside from the richly difficult-to-pin-down parallels of his first film, Romero’s rarely shown what could be called a light touch with satire or subtext. "Diary" takes on its chosen target of truth and power in media by having its
characters talk, sometimes endlessly and at the cost of scares and
interest, about truth and power in media. The living are often more dangerous to each other than the sluggish dead in these films, but "Diary"’s characters have such a tendency toward taking ethical stands or speechifying during impractical moments that you start to feel like they deserve their inevitable chomping. The issue of how anyone could keep filming through the devouring of his
friends by animated corpses is explained away as an obsession/coping
mechanism for Jason, but no excuse is offered for how his girlfriend Debra (Michelle
Morgan) can keep railing on the fact — "If it didn’t happen on camera,
it didn’t happen," she snips at him. We know Debra’s due for a change of heart, because she also somberly
narrates the film, presenting it as something edited together from
Jason’s footage with music for effect, because, as she says, "I am hoping to scare you, so that maybe you’ll wake up."
Even with its serious ham-handedness, "Diary" has resonance: Jason posts what he’s shot on the web, where it’s a magnet for those wanting to get to the truth through the noise of misinformation from official sources, something that unmistakably recalls amateur coverage of Iraq, and what Brian De Palma did even less elegantly in "Redacted." There’s both a virtue and a cost to this documentation, a cause to which Jason, it’s not so much a spoiler to write, martyrs himself. "Diary" also martyrs itself to making its point — as a horror film it has some scares, but also an overabundance of didacticism and listless downtime. The rare and ridiculous moments of humor — a "don’t mess with Texas" bit, a meta-rebuke of the recent rapid-undead trend and a mute Amish farmer — are more than a relief. They’re a gesture to the fact that "Diary" is, after all, a zombie movie, and that the audience is owed a little fun.
+ "Diary of the Dead" (Myspace)