I don’t know whether Diary of the Dead was an honestly-bungled attempt to move the zombie movie forward as a format…or a flagrantly half-assed attempt to make up for Land of the Dead. I can’t see George Romaro’s heart. Anything is possible. Making a decent zombie flick only seems an impossible task thanks to my relative inexperience. Dawn of the Dead was the last great hope and that was 1978. The wave crested, and it’s been rolling back ever since we left that mall. Why can no one admit that mall was the last good idea George Romaro had? Why must we have Diary of the Dead?
Framed as a documentary-within-a-movie titled The Death of Death (“a film by Jason Creed”), Diary is, as far as I’m concerned, exactly the type of film George would’ve made had he put together a Dead movie in the 1990s (rather than bang his head against the intractable wall of stupidity that Resident Evil eventually became). Full of young, pretty people who’ve never seen zombie movies before, Diary ends up being much less than we’ve come to expect from ol’ George.
After a local news cameraman’s footage of a triple murder-suicide, which serves as our prologue and concludes with the victims rising from their gurneys to attack the MTs, we meet Deb (Michelle Morgan) in voice over. She introduces us to our Jason Creed production. The title is a slick twist on a biodiversity article written by Eugene Lindon that appeared in TIME way the hell back in 1989…further cementing my theory: this is George Romero’s Dead movie for the 90s, radically shifted in time. Intended as a straight-horror film, Deb’s Magic Voice explains it’s become more than that now…what with the Zombie Apocalypse and all.
Deb’s voice serves to explain why Diary is much slicker than Cloverfield, or their common stylistic progenitor, The Blair Witch Project. (Deb even admits, “I’ve added music for effect. Trying to scare you.”) This is not found footage: this is a finished product immediately placing itself above those other, lesser handheld films. And right off the bat I’m disappointed: I expected a straight-up, POV zombie movie, goddamnit. Things like music, strategic cuts, and coverage are inappropriate distractions that do not fit the format, George. You can’t have it both ways. You’ve got to forge on, make your own way…and if that means reinventing the wheel, well…sucks, but…it’s not like you haven’t done it before.
In any case, the movie-proper opens amongst some U of Pittsburgh students making a mummy movie in the woods. The radio informs them about the six dead people mysteriously waking up back in town. Mummy man Ridley (Philip Riccio) takes this as his cue to leave, girlfriend in tow. The rest of the cast immediately loose my confidence when they mutually agree to split up. Retards. I hope you all die.
Our cameraman, and head retard, Jason Creed (Joshua Close) begins obsessively “documenting” the zombie carnage as soon as he discovers his obligatory girlfriend’s dorm deserted. “Are you still shooting?” Deb -of-the-present, the aforesaid girlfriend, asks when she eventually shows up. “What are you shooting?” Good question. The Internets reveal chaos is already spreading, along with the usual, authoritative disinformation. Deb-of-the-future chimes in at this point: “I think that’s what started the panic – not knowing the truth.” Not, say, all the dead people suddenly coming back to life. That’s just annoying. But to think, a government, the government, lying about it…that really busted Deb’s balls.
Deb-of-the-present is thankfully unaware of her future-self’s politically naive judgment calls. Somehow, our group reforms in the back of a Winnebago, and it’s time for the roll. There’s Mary (Tatiana Maslany) behind the wheel; it’s her Winne. There’s Tony (Shawn Roberts), the make-up man, pulled right from a Ralph Loren catalog. There’s Tracy (Amy Ciupak Lalonde), from Texas (of course!), and her jock boyfriend (of course again), Gordo (Chris Violette). There’s token-nerd Elliott (Joe Dinicol ), handling the AV. And getting drunk in the back we find Professor Andrew Maxwell, Emeritus (Scott Wentworth – whom I recognized as Detective Kermit Griffin from Kung-Fu: The Legend Continues, even though I didn’t know it until the internet verified my sneaking suspicion).
The gang’s headed to Scranton, where Deb’s folks have a house that might just be isolated enough to hold out against the dead. Let the betting begin: who’ll make it there alive? Do we care? Not particularly, no. Beyond Deb, the cast is vague and flat, filled with people as empty as the zombies they kill. After three zombies form an impromptu roadblock, Mary mows them down, and is so distraught by this she pulls over and tries to eat her little lady Derringer. Failing to put one through her own brain, the gang does the right thing and trips to the nearest hospital. This ends badly, of course – but ol’ Gordo becomes quite the capable zombie killer. So, of course, a former patient (and current corpse) has to bite him, allowing everyone to learn the rules of zombification all over again. As Deb’s voice over puts it, “God had changed the rules on us.” But that’s bullcrap. Ignoring all those shitty remakes, we find Romeroian zombies haven’t changed much in forty years. Make-up and digital blood effects have gotten better, but so what? I want money shots, I watch porn.
Another hallmark of Romero’s flicks: there’s no time for speculation. The usual hoaxes, viruses, and electrochemical upsets are mentioned in passing and dismissed. We’re watching a road movie here, and realize this as soon as we leave the hospital.
Gordon dies of his shoulder bite, leaving Trace to punch his ticket. My favorite character in the film, a deaf Amish man, gives our main lunch meat shelter after the Winnie breaks down, but that’s just a temporary pit stop. An “army” of the dead descend on poor Amish man’s barn as Tracy fixes up the fuel line. Poor Amish man doesn’t make it, though he checks out in a way sure to please the gorehounds. (I can tell it pleased Romero.) The kids (what am I saying – they all look my age) find their way into the sheltering arms of the Token Black Resistance, and Deb staring-contests their Keith David-esque leader into parting with some supplies. My hopes that he’d take her aside and advise her to “Ditch that camera-luggin motherfucker before he gets his dumb ass killed, along with the rest of ya’all,” turn out to be in vain. As are Deb’s hopes for a happy family reunion. Her folks (and little brother) are already dead to the world, yet still quite mobile. So it’s on to Ridley’s house. Remember Ridley, the mummy man? Turns out he’s a trust-fundian and the surviving Scoobies find him still clad in his rags, the family mansion deserted. Mom and Dad ate the staff, and the staff bit Ridley’s girlfriend, but it’s okay. They’re all “buried” in the pool house out back. The main house has a steel reinforced panic room all gassed up (where’s the electricity coming from?) and ready to go. But is that a bite mark on Ridley’s arm?
So what? As with all of Romero’s other pictures, this one isn’t really about zombies so much as the breakdown of society they cause. Which is part of why I’m so saddened by Diary. With all the potential avenues of social critique laid bare before him, Romero chooses to focus on the most obvious and ham-handed one of all (that he hasn’t already made a movie about): sensationalist, bullshit media and its culpability in that social breakdown aforesaid.
George, let me ask you, honestly: are you, of all people, actually trying to argue that a sensationalist media environment inures us to “real” world violence? Tell that to the next PTSD sufferer you meet. Better yet, have a bodyguard do it, since you might want to keep your face arranged in its present shape. “Why are you still shooting,” indeed. Jason seems to be powered by altruism. Halfway through the film, he argues for the validity of uploading to his MySpace page, creating an online Malius Zombifacarum. This scene features some good acting from Morgan as her Deb is so obviously disgusted with Jason’s logic she doesn’t even try to argue the point. Nor will I. Except to say, “That’s fine dude, as long as the lines still work.” As if no one in this wacky, parallel dimension has ever seen a zombie movie. And don’t even try to tell me this is set on the same day as Night of the Living Dead. A cheaper cop-out I have not heard in a long, long time, George, “reimaginings” notwithstanding.
A period-piece remake of Night might look interesting – but only if Romero succeeded at channeling his younger self. While Diary’s meant as an “update” of the zombie flick, the presence of YouTube, cellphones with cameras, and the vague references to Katrina or those phantom Weapons of Mass Destruction are all incidental throw-away lines, anchors the plot tosses aside as it moves from set-up to set-up. Without them, the film is decoupled from time, and could just as easily have come out in 1999.
“There are over two hundred million video cameras in people’s hands,” a disembodied voice (not Deb’s…something she edited in for effect, surely) tells us, during one of the many disjointed montages that invade the main footage. “What gets into our heads when we see something horrible?” Deb asks, “…but we don’t stop to help? We stop to look.”
Alright. But we’ve been stopping to look since (at least) the explosion in home video technology way back in the 1980s. Instead of focusing on that, Romero-of-that-time took on what was arguably a much, much more important issue: the bellicose militarism of 1980s America. He did it in as high-handed a manner as possible, but at least he got it done, and the result (Day of the Dead) remains remarkably strong for it, even if it’s not as good as Dawn or Night.
Where’d that George Romero go? To paraphrase Richard Nixon, we need him now more than ever. At least Day of the Dead tried to add some twist to the mix with its “intelligent” zombie and its implicit questioning of just where the line lies between the dead and the living. Diary of the Dead doesn’t try much of anything, other than the occasional bit of low humor. This doesn’t even feel like Romero anymore. It feels like most of the crap zombie pictures I’ve seen these last five years, and fully a third of the crap documentaries available on YouTube and its imitators. There’s more money behind the cameras, but all the money in the world can’t make me care about anyone other than Deb.
She is the Buffy of our piece, and Morgan does a good job fleshing out her transition from college student to bad ass. The other cast members stand still for a remarkably long time, their characterization coming in fits and starts too disconnected to be meaningful. They have less to do and fewer things to go on than their zombified foes. At the end, Deb’s voice asks, “Are we—” collective humanity “—worth saving?” In your current state, no. It seems the last twenty years have only reinforced Romero’s inherent nihilism. He seems to have given up on us, as an audience and a species.
These days, old George appears to be firing over the heads of his core fans, aiming for today’s crop of shallow, vacuous teenagers. To this end, he makes shallow, vacuous movies that look like a dozen other pictures produced twenty years ago by less-talented individuals. My vacuous teenage self (for example) would’ve considered Diary of the Dead an insulting waste of his time. I can hear him now, shouting down from the past: “Tell me something I don’t fucking know, George.”
Of course our cultural epistemology is in crisis. Of course we’re being led around by lunatics and lairs. Of course we live in a world of multiple, incompatible truths. But you don’t have the courage of give us that in this, your first true Dead movie of the twenty-first century, George. The truth (really, your character’s truth) is an attempt to synthesize something out of not a whole hell of a lot, really. Good luck with that. In the mean time, I’ll be over here with my popcorn and your original Dead Trilogy. Come get me when you have your next hot idea…or any idea at all, for that matter.