Phil on Film Index
Sunday, March 23, 2008
Review - George A Romero's Diary of the Dead
George A Romero's Night of the Living Dead was the film that spawned an entire genre, with the subsequent forty years being full of (mostly lame) zombie movie knock-offs, and now, with Diary of the Dead, the venerable director himself has joined the ranks of those producing dull imitations of the classic 1968 horror. Diary of the Dead, alas, is not a zombiefied version of Bridget Jones' Diary (15 fags, 3 BRAAIINNSS!!! – v.bad), and instead it's just another movie in which a group of bland young nobodies tries to evade the clutches of the freshly dead. Diary of the Dead attempts to distinguish itself from the previous entries in the series through the adoption of the same aesthetic style that we saw in the recent Cloverfield, with everything unfolding through the lens of a single character-operated camera. Such visual gimmickry seems worthless, however, when the level of acting, plotting and action is so utterly mediocre.
After the relatively large budget Romero worked with on his last feature, 2005's Land of the Dead, the director has scaled things back for Diary of the Dead. The film is a faux-documentary called The Death of Death, which has been edited together by Debra (Michelle Morgan) from footage shot by her aspiring filmmaker boyfriend Jason (Joshua Close) as they and their buddies fled from the undead. She mixes this footage up with sequences plucked from the internet – like the excellent news report gone awry that opens the film – that give us a hint of the mass public panic these startling developments have stirred up. Debra believes her documentary will bring us the truth of the zombie invasion, a truth that we won't get from a media intent on manipulating it for their own ends. Noble sentiments, but Debra has also indulged in some crafty, suspense-building editing on her film, and she's added spooky music because, as her voiceover admits, "I also want to scare you". So, Romero gets to have it both ways. On the one hand he can include the set-pieces and jumps we expect from a zombie flick, and on the other hand he gets to commentate on the YouTube generation and the failings of the mass media – but whatever way you look at Diary of the Dead, the whole thing just feels so tired.
The most infuriating aspect of Diary of the Dead is the way the action is depicted through a camera supposedly wielded by one of the central characters. As in Cloverfield, this is a conceit that simply doesn't work. It limits our experience of the film – at one point, Jason is stuck in a room, charging his battery, while we hear his friends battling zombies next door – and it constantly stretches our plausibility. Jason's friends implore him to drop the camera throughout the film, and when he's standing yards from his companions, refusing to intervene as their life hangs in the balance, we don't feel the characters' fear because we're too busy wondering what this fool with the camera is doing. But would a film like this have looked good with standard shooting techniques? I doubt it. The acting is generally dismal, with the bland bunch of pretty boys and girls Romero has assembled being almost totally indistinguishable from one another, and the only mildly interesting character on show is the incongruous English professor (Scott Wentworth) who hangs around with the students and affects an air of vague indifference to the whole messy business. The other character who leaves an impression on the picture is scythe-wielding Amish farmer who comes to their aid late in the film; but odd, leftfield touches like that are in small supply (I liked the zombie clown with a bloody nose too), and instead Diary of the Dead embraces every available genre cliché. It's spoiling nothing to reveal the main characters having to kill one of their own when a zombie bites, and as they drive towards the safe haven of home, you just know they're going to encounter undead family members who they'll have to despatch.
It's nice to see Romero, at the age of 68, still trying to make movies that carry relevant messages, but Diary of the Dead is heavy-handed and limp. His attacks on our society's ghoulish desire to record and upload every tragic incident that takes place in front of us are pretty weak, and on too many occasions Brenda's narration literally spells out the themes of the picture. Throughout the course of Romero's Dead franchise the political subtext of his films has gradually been moving towards the foreground, at the expense of excitement and imagination; now, after forty years of zombie pictures, perhaps it's time he recognised that this genre has been done to death.