George Romero is a filmmaker worth rooting for. He's an iconoclastic director brimming with bold social criticism, not to mention the man is personally responsible for the mainstream appeal of the zombie genre. He's a legend; however, a legend not above falling on his face from time to time. "Diary of the Dead" is one of those wincing moments: a collection of stunning zombie-kill sequences blanketed by a patchwork quilt of astoundingly inept filmmaking choices.
Joining the ranks of the recent "Cloverfield" and the botched "Welcome to the Jungle," "Diary of the Dead" is presented through the concept of a you-are-there experience, based upon recovered and manipulated footage of a zombie outbreak. What we're actually watching is entitled "The Death of Death," produced by a group of clueless Pennsylvania college students out in the woods making a horror movie. They are cold, overworked, and ready to abandon their director, Jason (Joshua Close), when the undead rise up and start munching the locals. The kids are panicked but puzzled, and Jason wants to document every moment with his HD cameras.
Like the rest of the "Dead" series (the seminal "Night of the Living Dead," the classic "Dawn of the Dead'," the misstep "Day of the Dead," and the underrated "Land of the Dead"), "Diary" is an ambitious, philosophical, vicious production that clearly defines Romero's headspace right now. It's a film targeting the manipulation of media and how reality is a thing of the past, replaced by opportunists and a corporate news structure that abuses responsibility and profits from misery. It's the standard social commentary from Romero, only in "Diary" it's distributed via shotgun blasts of the obvious, forgoing delicacy to paint with thick, juicy rollers of condemnation, delivered by the worst ensemble acting that has passed across these eyes in some time.
Perhaps Romero was lost in a fog of pressure trying to get this low-budget film off the ground, but his direction of the actors is atrocious, due in great part to the laughably awful screenplay which overdoses on cartoonish "I'm acting!" cursing and non-stop exposition. Not a single character has an inner monologue in this picture; they vomit their every last impulse onto the screen, bumping around the frame to experience the level of panic required, but anchored to the ground by idiotic stabs at end-of-days insightfulness. Again, Romero has never been Welles, but to sign off on this script and these performances demonstrates a disturbing lack of competence from the filmmaker, resulting in ham-fisted scenes of conflict and distress, some bathed in a sickening self-referential glaze.
Thank heavens there's still blood-spurting zombie action around to distract from the politics, and Romero wields the undead brilliantly here. Kicking off the film with a little dig at the recent wave of sprinting zombie movies, Romero presents a new wave of the relentless flesh-eaters, slaughtered by the kids and background characters with delicious attention to the gruesome details. Dispatched with hospital instruments, dynamite, and even a scythe (swung by a mute Amish man, in the film's finest, most relaxed sequence), "Diary" allows itself these moments of ghoulish merriment before quickly plunging back into despondency.
"Diary" dabbles in racial tension, abusive American military power (our "saviors"), the rise of "free" media outlets (such as YouTube and MySpace), and the ultimate question: are we, the ruthless, violent, heavily-armed mouthbreathing yokels, worth saving from a zombie plague? Does our petulant, voyeuristic society that profits wildly from death and misery get a free pass when Hell holds a tailgating party on our front lawns? For a former hippie like Romero, this new media-centric world is a roundabout that's endlessly fascinating, opening up the zombie genre to a whole new standard of irony and scrappy execution. I just wish Romero had the sense to package all his curiosity and thoughts in a more effective movie. Preferably one free of quotes from "A Tale of Two Cities" and the employment of horrendous young actors.
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