For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a huge fan of George A. Romero. The original Dawn of the Dead is, and always will be, my favorite movie of all time . . . it’s as simple as that. The pictures Romero made from 1968’s Night of the Living Dead to 2000’s Bruiser may have their fair share of flaws and shortcomings, but I still like each and every one of them.
In 2005, Romero finally gave us his long-awaited fourth entry in The Dead Trilogy, Land of the Dead . . . and well, to say I was disappointed with it is a bit of an understatement. Even after Bruiser was released to pretty poor reviews in 2000, I defended Romero up and down, but with LOTD, I really do believe he lost some of the magic that made his earlier pictures so incredible.
The main thing that ruined LOTD (and George’s career) in my eyes was the blunt political commentary. Sure, the other Dead movies had some sort of social commentary, but maybe it’s just the fact that Romero finally had his own say about what’s going on today after every other bleeding heart liberal made their own movie, documentary, blog entry, or song. For the first time, I was truly seeing an innovator become a follower . . . it left an unforgivable negative impression on me.
When Diary of the Dead was announced, I really simply did not care about it in the least bit. Again, there was talk about how Universal and the big money people were at fault for LOTD’s dismal box office intake, so when Diary of the Dead was marketed as a return to Romero’s indie roots, I still didn’t even get excited about it. And, when it was given a limited theatrical release (only playing near me in NYC), I swore that there was no way in hell I’d travel out of my way to see it. Of course, it was released to pretty solid reviews from the Horror community and critics alike, praising its commentary on our society’s obsession with video-taping things and uploading them to Youtube or MySpace. Maybe it was worth checking out after all?
I finally saw it the other night . . .
Diary of the Dead tells the story of a group of college film students who are out to make a mummy movie for a senior thesis. As they run into production problems out in the middle of the Pennsylvania wilderness, they overhear some disturbing news on the radio about the dead returning to life and attacking the living. From there, they decide to flee and make their way “home” to see their friends and families . . . or at least see if they’re still alive.
Right from the get-go, Romero is already a mere follower – the much better Cloverfield was released shortly before Diary (this is the story of Romero’s life; Day of the Dead bombed because Return of the Living Dead was released about a month prior to its own release, effectively satiating moviegoers’ hunger for zombie carnage). Where Cloverfield succeeds – ie: making the film actually feel like one long hand-held video that was shot as all hell was breaking loose – Diary effectively cripples itself with some unneeded voice-over narration from Debra (played by Michelle Morgan). Many critics and reviewers who didn’t worship this movie simply because it had Romero’s name attached to it complained about how the narration immediately pulled them out of the film and distracted the experience. I agree. Morgan sounded more like a fifth-rate Sarah Connor impersonator here than anything else.
None of the characters are really likable (which is funny because that’s what almost every review of Day of the Dead claims is a low-point of that film…I, for one, love that movie) aside from Ridley (played by Phillip Riccio), Eliot (played by Joe Dinicol), and an Amish farmer played by R. D. Reid (of the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead remake). All of the other main characters are terrible clichés or they act out clichés: Josh Close plays Jason Creed, the stereotypical film student obsessed with becoming the next Spielberg (or in this case, the next Romero) and Scott Wentworth’s portrayal of film professor Andrew Maxwell, the drunkard who talks down to the kids about death feels like something we've seen dozens of times before.
A couple positive things worth noting here lie in the fact that Diary of the Dead isn’t merely a new sequel, but more or less an reinvention (sort of like Batman Begins maybe?) of the world Romero created in 1968. The initial outbreak and societal breakdown that was only alluded to in Romero’s earlier Dead series is finally given a glimpse here. As we see through the eyes of a television news crew covering a double homicide at an apartment building, there is still something refreshing about zombies with Romero at the helm! This scene definitely harkens back to Romero's glory days and easily could have been an outtake from the original Dawn of the Dead!
One really cool bit that I thought tied into the notion that Diary is essentially happening at the same time as the original Night of the Living Dead (aside from fashion, time and a correct year are never given in any of the original Dead pictures) was the inclusion of audio from one of the TV broadcasts the farmhouse survivors are watching – presumably coming from the same, live TV broadcast here in the new film.
As with any Romero movie, there’s always a sense of family among the cast and crew and, true to form, several familiar faces (or, in some cases, voices) pop up throughout the movie; F/X man Greg Nicotero, composer and “Screwdriver Zombie” John Harrison, “Butcher Zombie” Boyd Banks, Simon Pegg, Quentin Tarantino, as well as Romero himself.
While it’s impossible to really reinvent the wheel with a zombie movie, Romero does manage to come up with some new and interesting way to kill zombies; I’ll never look at a defibrillator in quite the same way again. And the way a character “buries” several zombies later in the film, is a welcome addition to the Dead mythos.
In the end, while Diary of the Dead has its moments, it’s still just a painful reminder of how great Romero’s past work is and that his continued mining of territory he’s excelled in before cannot repeat those previous successes. And with the announcement that Romero has made yet another Dead movie (sporting the original title of "George A. Romero's ...of the Dead), this movie hurts even more. Skip it!