Format: DVD from LaSalle Public Library through interlibrary loan on rockin’ flatscreen.
So let’s talk for a minute about George Romero. You cannot get away from the fact that Romero was an important filmmaker. If he did nothing after Night of the Living Dead, he’d still be remembered with a great deal of respect. He did a lot more, of course, but despite films like Martin and The Crazies, he’s always going to be remembered as the guy who created zombies as they are known in the modern world. After his initial trilogy, he took a 20-year break from zombies until creating three more films. The middle film of that group, Diary of the Dead, is the one that concerns us today.
Before we dive too heavily into the film itself, I need to say a few things about it. First is that the overall quality of Romero’s zombie films drops off after the initial trilogy. I like the initial three movies quite a bit. Night of the Living Dead is a true genre classic and Dawn of the Dead is arguably better and definitely bloodier. Day of the Dead is better than it’s initial reputation and not nearly as good as its current reputation, but it’s not bad. When we move into the second trilogy, we start with Land of the Dead, which has some interesting ideas, but doesn’t quite reach the strength of the original movies. Diary of the Dead is not nearly as good as Land of the Dead.
The second thing I need to bring up is how in so many ways this movie is depressing to me. When Romero did the original Dead movie, he was innovating at a high level. He continued to innovate in many ways with Dawn of the Dead. Even Land of the Dead has some interesting ideas. But here, Romero is jumping onto someone else’s trend bandwagon. This is essentially a found footage film. It’s sad that someone who was once a damn giant in the genre seems to be playing a sad game of catch up with this one.
In a lot of ways, Diary of the Dead is a reboot of the zombie apocalypse from Romero. Where Land of the Dead gave us a world that had been dealing with zombies for some time, Diary of the Dead puts us back at the start of the zombie plague, and also gives us a world where that plague spreads unbelievably quickly. We’re focused on a group of college students in Pennsylvania who are, coincidentally, concerning themselves with a student monster movie when news of the dead coming back to life surfaces.
Once this happens, the students more or less pile into an RV and head toward Scranton and the home of one of the students. Along the way we’re going to see evidence of the zombie plague and the breakdown of human society. This is one of the things that doesn’t seem to work that well in the film. Diary of the Dead takes place over the course of a couple of days, and we go from the initial inciting incident of the zombie plague to complete pandemonium and chaos instantly. The students making their film head back to the dorms and find them already deserted. When one of the characters attempts suicide and fails, the group heads to a hospital only to find it abandoned except for zombies. That quickly? It seems to have gone from zero to 60 in no time at all.
The other problem here is the same one I had with the remake of Dawn of the Dead: there are too many characters. The strength of Romero’s other zombie movies, the first two especially, is that the number of characters we know and care about can be counted on one hand or a little more than that. There are a bunch of characters here, and many of them are indistinguishable from the others. There’s one older character who is a professor (Scott Wentworth) and a character who is more or less our narrator (Michelle Morgan), and the rest are more or less fodder. I can’t tell you the names of the characters who survive to the end of the film because they’re all more or less the same character.
It’s also not a very good exemplar of the found footage style. One of the things that makes found footage films work is not just the slap-dash camera work, but also how that affects what we see. When we’re dealing with a “non-professional” camera operator, we end up missing a lot of what we’d normally see. Something happens that we catch the edge of, and when the camera swings over, what we thought we’ve seen is gone. That’s not the case in Diary of the Dead. All of the zombie attacks are perfectly framed as if the camera operator knew what was coming, because of course he or she did. That takes away from the expected style.
I think it’s pretty clear that Romero was going for a riff on voyeurism or YouTube culture with Diary of the Dead, and it’s only mildly successful on that point. It’s a worthwhile subject to explore, but it’s been done better elsewhere. I’m a little sad.
Why to watch Diary of the Dead: George Romero, zombies…you need more?
Why not to watch: In general, the more recent the Romero zombie movie, the worse it is.