Diary of the Dead is the 5th entry in George A. Romero's Living Dead series (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead followed by Survival of the Dead). This series has a strong cult following, one that I admit I am a part of. Why did it take me so long then to get around to seeing this? Not sure, but now that I've seen it, I wasn't all that impressed by it.
Newsflash - how does my hair look?
In Diary, Romero takes us back to the beginning of the zombie apocalypse, so technically this happens on the same night as Night of the Living Dead, his extremely low-budget 1968 introduction to the series, but has updated the events to take place in 'present day' (well, 2007 present day at least).
I'm totally getting a 'A' on this project. Get Spielberg on the phone!
A small group of student filmmakers and their obnoxious professor (complete with a snarky British accent) are shooting a Mummy movie for their class when news of the zombie outbreak interrupts them. They take to the road to A) try and figure out what's going on and B) find their loved ones. Being film students, one of them obsessively films every movement of the group stating it's important to document this and annoying all his friends because he never puts the camera down for a second (one assumes somewhere there is footage of him in the bathroom because he's so dedicated to shooting everything). Thus we have the framework for this movie, a crude 'documentary video' style shot film (like The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield) and it doesn't work in this instance at all.
Hey so I didn't get your eyeball being gouged out. Can we do that again?
The idea is, that as civilization crumbles, the main camera operator has been uploading his footage to the internet so as to document the 'true' events, especially when it becomes apparent that the government's footage is covering up what is really going on. Why he is so obsessive never comes across clearly and instead we get the usual shaky camera-work and some scenes that really don't make narrative sense like when they have to plug in the camera to recharge the battery, so we're stuck with this one guy just standing there waiting while his friends search a deserted hospital. Most importantly - this film isn't tense or scary! Seeing that we're stuck with this one person's point of view (later 2 when they conveniently find another camera), a lot of the areas where the director and editor would use editing to create tension are completely gone - something essential in zombie movies especially since the zombies move so slowly. It doesn't help that the characters are all extremely annoying, especially the camera operator who peppers them with annoying questions like 'what's you name' (even though they all know each other) and it's surprising that one of the others doesn't just grab the camera out of his hands or punch him in the face. I wanted to.
That's right...go for my throat! Audiences will eat this up after you eat my brains.
This series has been exceptional in that although all the films follow a similar 'surviving against the onslaught of the undead' storyline, each movie has been unique. Whether it's the group barricaded in a shopping mall (Dawn of the Dead) or soldiers and scientists holed up in a military bunker trying to figure this whole thing out and hold onto their humanity as long as their can (Day of the Dead), they've all distinguished themselves as separate entities operating in the same world. Romero also loves to throw in social commentary (there's even a throw-away joke about it made by the snarky professor), and here it seems to be aimed at people who hide behind their cameras or TV sets as observers, and never live life themselves. Right at the beginning, an ambulance shows up to an accident scene only to be told by a newsman to movie their vehicle 'it's blocking his shot' and they comply for some reason. The characters are always chastising the camera operator for filming with statements like "it's too easy to use" which when used in reference to a gun and killing makes complete sense, but when referenced to the camera use makes absolutely none at all. One character uses the line when offered to take over filming, and her indignation left me completely confused. So what if this guy is filming? Many times the zombies appear and nobody steps up to kill them until the last possible second (they love to stand and yell) - but at least the camera guy is doing SOMETHING.
The other main problem which I touched on briefly above is that this movie just isn't scary at all. The group takes to the road to survive - typical for zombie films and is the main premise for the hit TV show The Walking Dead - and tries to find safe haven, humanity and answers anywhere they can. They come across zombies which are sometimes easy to dispatch, and sometimes not so much. [SPOILER alert] They meet some armed survivors that look bad-ass, but end up being good guys. They also come across some soldiers they think are good guys who rob them blind. Sure there are some cool moments like one zombie attack is particularly quick and violent, one zombie's guts spill out onto a floor and another has his head melted by acid (that one I enjoyed immensely). There is a cool bit with a deaf Amish guy, but it's short lived. Yet most of the time the characters sit staring off depressed about the world crumbling around them, arguing with each other and in the case of the obnoxious professor, steadily drinking alcohol while prattling on about how tired he is of killing and violence. It doesn't help that none of the characters are dynamic or even remotely likable. They make more effective zombie food than they do protagonists.
I hope these dumb looking kids can read...
One thing to listen for are voice-over cameos from the radio broadcasts. I'm pretty sure I recognized Guillermo del Toro, Quentin Tarantino, Simon Pegg and Wes Craven. There is also a director's cameo by Romero giving a press conference on TV.
This movie needed waaaayyy more of this!
Had this movie come out now at a time when we are all slaves to our smartphones with cameras I think that the message would have been stronger (although I can't blame Romero for not knowing that was only a few years away). The trailer for the upcoming film Nightcrawler starring Jake Gyllenhaal got this message across in 2 minutes way more effectively than this movie did in an hour and a half. My recommendation - watch the previous Living Dead films or The Walking Dead instead.