It's odd how the trend of first-person documentary style films have become the rage in aggressive cinema, especially following the late '90s wish-wash public acceptance of The Blair Witch Project. Many film goers have found problems with their churning cinematic shots and different amalgamations between the reality of the situation and the film as a piece of entertainment. I, however, thoroughly enjoyed both Blair Witch and the more recent hype machine, Matt Reeves' Cloverfield, for what they worked to accomplish - acting warts and all. When I discovered that George A. Romero, director of the original classic zombie flicks Dawn of the Dead and Night of the Living Dead, would be stripping his universe back down to a more independent slice of cinema in a "record-these-horrible-events" style for Diary of the Dead, I was pretty stoked.
Sadly, the reasons that typically plague other documentary-style horror flicks bugged me more than normal in Diary of the Dead. Between sub-par character creation and weak filmic assembly, Romero's recent film fails to find his typically spot-on rhythm between fright, function, and formula. It's still an enjoyably solid zombie flick with flutters of Romero's signature social critique, but it reeks of botched potential.
Diary of the Dead lets its viewers know right from the get-go that the material edited on-screen is all accounts, both first-person and from subsidiary cameras, that have been pieced together by one filmmaker to chronicle the events at-hand. After the audience is subjected to the initial shots of a small zombie breakout gone chaotic, it becomes wholly aware that all hell will break loose in the rest of the subsequent footage. The narrator then tells the audience that she's edited the film and recorded a soundtrack for the events that'll try and scare them, which puzzled me a bit. Why not just leave the raw footage alone for our consumption? If the material is intense enough to document on tape, then some cheap parlor tricks shouldn't be necessary to creep the audience out. But that's neither here nor there at this point.
The core narrative starts innocently enough, namely in the hands of a camera operator during the filming of a student-run horror flick. Characters are introduced admirably, feeling very much like the satiric mechanics behind a pennies-in-the-cushion mummy movie. The director, Jason (Joshua Close), prophetically describes the way that a dead person should move and look through his direction to one of the actors. Looming about the set are several production assistants ranging from a geeky kid in glasses (Joe Dinicol) and the buff hero-esque character (Shaun Roberts) to the aging sage-like prophet with a penchant for nice bourbon (Scott Wentworth). The overindulgence of the characters' stereotypical segmentation irked me from the starting line in Diary of the Dead, but it's an easy oversight when preparing for Romero's style of ingenuity.
Though the kids' production gets a little rough around the edges, the set seems right at home as a typically erratic creative environment. That is, until, word echoes out in their forest locale about the previously-mentioned breakout, along with other reported occurrences of the dead rising inexplicably, and panic strikes the crew. Jason, being the respective filmmaker that he is, decides to take his camera in-hand and chronicle the events as his crew hops onto their Winnebago-like RV transport and bolts towards sanctuary, namely each character's respective homes. He bugs everyone for their names and places of birth, leaving them no real time to soak in the reality that an apocalyptic resurrection of the dead is at hand. This may have been a mistake on the filmmaker's part, because each character on their own either feels a) cliche to the point of disbelief, or b) uninteresting to the degree that they merely drain our energy. The only character that really nails that balance between quirk and belief is Wentworth's alcoholic professor, which our prying "director" ostensibly leaves out of much of his questioning.
Without question, our cameraman and guiding force, Jason, makes some very bizarre and, put bluntly, ignorantly unbelievable choices as he balances between capturing the data as an almost robotic cameraman and existing as a human being with emotional sensitivity. He doesn't seem to be the only one, however: much of the paranoia of the film comes from the gradual discovery from online video uploads and pictorials discovered via the Internet that document the sprawling nature of the zombie epidemic. Romero's little social critiques are in alignment here, concentrating on the levels between media bias, anarchy, and decency. I just wish Jason would've had a little more brains and a lot more heart about it all.
From hereon out, Diary of the Dead can best be looked at as a cocktail between Cloverfield and Boyle's 28 Days Later, only with Romero's aesthetical spitshine and sharp eye for pseudo-realism. The fourth wall between the audience and those experiencing the chaos has been shattered and construed due to its "historical" nature, following the sights and sounds that Jason chooses to shoot (and Debra chooses to edit into the film) as they scramble from location to location in search of supplies, safety, and ultimately anyone with a pulse. My favorite parts of Diary of the Dead, interestingly enough, were the scant interactivity the characters had with the zombies themselves. When it strips down and comes at the audience with its visceral energy and typically phenomenal make-up work, the magic behind Romero's ingenious hand becomes apparent. These entertaining zombie moments are spread too far apart, though, with a sizeable chunk of them taking place in their stalwart RV.
Where Diary of the Dead really fails to impress, however, is within the longevity of the characters meaningfulness, their flubbed lines of dialogue, and the overall level of human concentration anywhere within the film, whether it be positive or negative. Sure, you'll have the opportunity to see a few lackluster characters knocked off by zombies, and vice versa, but none of it ever really resonates when they occur. When this lack of humanism and compelling societal dynamic blend with quirky, forced dialogue and some equally forced cinematic trickery, such as plenty of slow-motion spans and unconvincing score cues paired with a not-so-compelling narrator, Diary of the Dead grew too infuriating and monotonous to hold my initially piqued interest.
It certainly has its moments of clarity, though, such as when the crew finally reaches one of their member's homes only to find the place eerily empty, but Romero's most recent flick is a far cry from the great zombie masterpieces that make his name as reputable as it is. Conceptually, it's all here within Diary of the Dead; it's just a shame that its successes have to be seen through some not-so-engaging style and performance blemishes that turn a potential masterwork into a deeply flawed, yet intriguing, socio-zombie romp.
Genius Products and The Weinstein Company present Diary of the Dead in a standard keepcase presentation under their "Dimension Extreme" collection label, shrouding the case with a nice, glossy slipcover for aesthetic pleasure.
Dark, dark, and dark are the most prominent adjectives to describe Diary of the Dead's 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation. Note that it's not a bad thing, in the slightest; obviously, Romero and his director of photography went for a darker feel to the image in crafting this little piece of work. Detail, clarity, and small splashes of color here and there look great. At the very beginning of the film, a lot of rust and amber shades find their way into the print, which looks just phenomenal. In all honestly, I wish they would have used this color scheme across the board, but that's not the issue at hand. Everything afterwards looks crisp and clean, perhaps a shade too much for the film's purpose. Of course, there are scenes where some gritty news camera and web footage finds its way into the image, which all looks as fuzzy and distorted as to be expected. However, the 85-90% of the film captured with the pseudo-shaky cam cinematography looks quite good.
Not quite as engaging, the Dolby 5.1 presentation just doesn't give off much of a dynamic, enveloping quality. Sure, you can toss around the homebrew argument that the footage didn't have surround elements and such; however, If we're going to be literal here, you'd think that the storyline's editor would infuse the film with more of a surround feel. It's not here - yet, though it lacks much in dynamic range, vocal clarity and sound effects all echo with apt eeriness through the speakers. Even the relatively mismatched score sounds decent, as well. It's distortion free and packs enough of a hearty punch with it sound effects to get the job done. Optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles are available.
One of the best compliments that you can give a DVD's special features is that it will make you appreciate the film even more after you've finished the line-up. The Weinstein's Diary of the Dead DVD does just that, in troves. Here's what available:
Commentary with Romero, cinematographer Swica, and editor Doherty:
Though two other names highlight the description here, make no mistake that this is Romero's commentary. He's a dynamic, insightful speaker about his projects and their meanings, which clearly pours through in this track. He addresses his thoughts about the symbolisms in the film, continuity decisions, as well as some personal opinions that delve a bit deeper than just "this means this" in the flick. It's an insightful, joke-filled listen that's almost like listening to a great storyteller reveal his secrets on how he enchants his audience with his tricks.
Each of the primary characters, save the professor, recorded Real World-esque confessionals in the bathroom (?) of the Winnebago during their travels. Though the footage wasn't utilized in the film, it's all here on the DVD. Plain and simple, these little bits should've been integrated into the narrative. You get to experience the gentle-shifting dread within each of these characters one after another. Each one sits down for around 2-3 minute periods at a time, save for a few resilient exceptions, and give their point of view about the chaos ensuing in the world. Considering the nature of Diary of the Dead, I really feel that these should've found their way into the movie.
The First Week:
Spanning around four (4) minutes, this little introductory piece features Michael Felsher as he chronicles the first days of shooting on the Diary of the Dead set in Toronto. It's short, pretty surface level, and void of much else than a few brief chuckles and some moderately intriguing interview portions.
Here, Romero takes a little face time with the audience and talks about his stripped-down feel to the film and its more independent roots. He discusses how he differentiated it from the rest of the "dead" films, as well as where his ideas come from for his zombie flicks. It's a short (2 minute) little feature, but even a little glimmer of Romero is worth the time.
Scattered across the film, several media voices and coverage clips splice in between scenes featuring the student filmmakers. Romero decided to have some fun with these bits - he enlisted several of his friends / celebrities to voice these parts ... over the phone. Here, we hear the raw footage captured on the line from Guillermo Del Toro, Simon Pegg, and Stephen King as they imprint themselves into Diary of the Dead's audio presentation. Apparently, as notated by a few lines that introduce this piece, several more famous voices find their way into the film, but this disc isn't revealing these secrets.
For the Record: Making of Diary of the Dead:
Here we've got 5 separate segments, spanning roughly 80+ minutes (!) that address several points across the film. You know, some people prefer the full-on, non-segmented features that illustrate how films are created, but I tend to prefer having them broken down. Even more so, I love it when they're segmented as well as they are here. Here's the portions:
Master of the Dead (13 minutes) focuses on George Romero, his history with making independent horror films, and his overall composure as a film budget's dream come true. It shows some great behind-the-scenes footage and exquisite interview time with Romero, which makes it one of the best of the bunch.
Into the Camera: The Cast (17 minutes) gives each of the actors some face time with the camera describing their characters history, motivations, and activity on screen. They also give theirt impressions and joys with working underneath Romero's cinematic blanket. It's a nice watch, though hearing about each character again really doesn't add a whole lot to the substance of the film.
You Look Dead! The Make-Up (11 minutes) delves into the bread and butter behind Romero's zombie films. The effects and make-up work is exquisite in Diary of the Dead, especially in a certain hospital scene that occurs near the core of the narrative. Here, the creative team chimes in on their achievements, capturing some progressive shots that show how each facial shot is achieved. As to be expected, this is a great and entertaining watch: you see some great footage of the assembly behind the initial state trooper zombie scene, as well as some of the great work done on one of the doctors at the hospital.
A New "Spin" on Death: Visual Effects (19 minutes) tackles the other side of the lowe-budget magic that occurs on Romero's set during the chaotic action sequences. It shows how inexpensive CG is incorporated with prop effects to craft some of the film's more intense sequences.
A World Gone Mad: Photography and Design (20 minutes) focuses on Adam Swica, the director of photography, and his work on the visual design of the film. He discusses how the camera itself becomes a character in the movie, illustrating how it works more aptly in modern times than it might have many years ago. This piece also discusses the actual set and clothing design of the film, focusing on reality and tangibility for the characters and the environments. I always get a kick out of scrutinizing aesthetics, and this piece does a very good job at doing so.
Myspace Contest Winners:
To close up the special features, five (5) short zombie films are includes as part of a MySpace contest. These five entrants include: The Final Day, Deader Living Through Chemistry, Opening Night of the Living Dead, & Teller, and Run For Your Life. These short pieces range from the grim to the comedic, each of them taking a nice insight into the genre's eccentricities. Personally, I prefer Deader Living Through Chemistry for its bleakness and cinematography, but that's just a personal opinion here.
George Romero, plain and simple, throws together some of the most thought-provoking and compelling horror films. Even a lesser effort like Diary of the Dead can still be seen as a cut above many others in its genre. Though it misfires with some thematic and script issues, the ideas and critiques lying underneath Romero's retread into independent horror give it plenty of side indulgences when blood and zombie flesh isn't being sprawled out on screen. Paired with great technical merits and a fantastic slate of extras, Diary of the Dead hits the ground running as a solidly Recommended disc.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site