The late, great George Romero was more than capable at trying his hand at all kinds of horror, but the man will forever be linked with the legions of living dead he unleashed upon the world back in 1968. His living dead trilogy is a high water mark for cinema (let alone horror), spawing countless imitators and even a fourth entry with Land Of The Dead in 2005; but as budgets started to dry up the only films Pittsburgh’s lord of the dead could get greenlit are those featuring his patented shambling hordes. While fans initially rejoiced (another Romero zombie flick is the horror version of Scorsese making another gangster film) there was a distinct feeling Romero went to the living dead well one too many times and the result was the conceptually sound, yet ultimately weak Diary Of The Dead.
According to a news report, the dead has started to rise and take sizeable bites out of the living and as society takes a rapid nosedive into a zombiefied toilet, we focus on a group of predictably self-important film students making a campy horror flick out in the woods. The small cast and crew react to the news in wildly different ways that run the entire spectrum from outright skepticism to shooting themselves in the face, some of the group decide to bog off home while the majority head over to Pennsylvania to check in with the parents of Deborah, the girlfriend of Jason, the director. As they travel on the back roads of a self-destructing America, getting the entirety of their intel from bloggers and hackers posting online (sound familiar?), Jason becomes obsessed with filming everything he sees and getting thoughts and feelings from his rapidly more irritated companions, insisting that it’s his job to document the outbreak.
As our leads negotiate various different scenarios that conveniently have them solemnly questioning the nature of man, their numbers slowly dwindle and after their visit to Pennsylvania turns to tragedy they choose to hook up with the members of their group who left, knowing that one of them has access to a panic room in their parent’s mansion. However, his cheerful video calls belay a sinister motive which means the group is heading rapidly into yet another potentially lethal situation.
Will any of them live long enough to post their footage to a dying world, and even if they do, who the fuck is going to be around to download it?
Having to actually put into print that I feel that the mighty George A. Romero made a bad zombie film feels like a hideous betrayal. After all, the man is inarguably one of horror’s greatest names, but as sure as John Carpenter eventually made a wonky anti-hero movie (Ghost Of Mars) and Wes Craven made a bad high-concept slasher (My Soul To Take), big George was unfortunately also not immune to losing his touch.
To give it it’s due, a drop in budget gave Romero the freedom to do pretty much whatever he wanted and the choice to switch to the Found Footage style allowed him to film fast and lose without having to do endless set-ups within the limited shooting schedule – situations that usually brings out the best in the notoriously independent director. However, the film is crammed with almost too many ideas; like Romero took a scrapbook of random concepts left out of his other dead movies and decided to cram them all into this one; and what’s more the film feels that way too. The entire enterprise is wildly uneven with the legendary horror director not really managing to adapt to a first person format particularly well, copping out slightly by having the “footage” re-edited by the surviving characters into a documentary-style format complete with a self-important voiceover.
As Romero is known for his political and social commentary, a lot of the stuff that tends not to work is probably by design; our leads are painfully pretentious, rich, white-kids who honestly think their actions are important; Christ, their documentary is even called The Death Of Death. They’re also prone to endless theorizing as everyone takes the oncoming zombie apocalypse as a sign to spout out half-baked philosophy and stare off into the night while stating shit like: “It was us against them, except them is us…”.
Even if I’m missing the point by rightfully thinking that an entitled group of film students isn’t a fun group of people to spend the zombie pocalypse with, Romero awkardly stages his action with the zombie encounters feeling sloppy and poorly executed.
Now it’s time for the good news and even a Romero film at half-strengh is still impressively prophetic, with Diary Of The Dead’s views on how information is being communicated (or not as the case may be) being incredibly relevant – especially when compared to how the world dealt with COVID.
The performances are nothing to write home about but there’s an early role for Orphan Black and future She-Hulk, Tatiana Maslany as a particularly vunerable member of the crew – but where Romero’s old skills shine through is in the hugely inventive kills that are scattered throughout the movie.
Special effects legend and Walking Dead bigwig, Greg Nicotero orchestrates some gleefully out there gore that impresses despite the odd, jarring splash of CGI blood. A zombie is zapped with a defibrillator until it’s eyes explode, another has it’s skull have an unfortunate run in with a bottle of hydrochloric acid, but the best of these end up being the random appearance of an ass-kicking, dynamite-wielding, mute Amish gentleman named Samuel who pulls a blackly humorous act of self-sacrifice with the business end of a scythe.
However, despite all this and an impressive clutch of vocal cameos that play over TV reports and radio broadcasts that include Quentin Tarantino, Wes Craven, Guillermo del Toro, Simon Pegg, and Stephen King, this lesser serving from the king of zombies marked a downslide that led directly to the somewhat bland Survival Of The Dead, which follows a group of soldiers that rob the characters in this film.
As the penultimate film in Romero’s filmography, the old embers are still there, questioning society and asking the important moral quandries that we’re asking ourselves now, but there is nothing here that can measure up to the director’s best works and the his zombie legacy is finally starting to decompose…