Rather than picking up where his last film, Land of the Dead, left off--decades into the zombie invasion--Romero goes back to the beginning of the zombie apocalypse he started in 1968, by setting Diary of the Dead at the onset of the dead coming back to life--only this night of the living dead takes place right here, right now. Instead of the dead coming back to life in an era of black and white television, when America was fighting in Vietnam and struggling with Civil Rights at home, the dead are now rising in a world of cell phones and the Internet, an over-burdened economy, an oil based war, and the media and the news are no longer the exclusive club they once were. In Night of the Living Dead, a small group of survivors sought refuge in a farmhouse, and remained glued to the television waiting for news broadcasts of what was going on in the world. In Diary of the Dead, a different group of survivors wanders the countryside with a digital camera, looking to capture the news as it unfolds. Rather than waiting to find out what the news is, these survivors want to report the news.
Shot as if it were a real documentary, not unlike the recent Cloverfield, or Blair Witch Project, Diary of the Dead begins with a voice-over explanation from Debra (Michelle Morgan), who awkwardly explains that everything we are about to see is real. She explains that any editing was done on her laptop, and that music was added for dramatic effect, which seems to be Romero covering his ass against possible accusations that his storytelling gimmick has hit a snag that defies plausibility. Romero does not want audiences wondering things like how the camera battery managed to say charged for so long, so he makes sure all of that gets explained.
Diary of the Dead starts, for all intents and purposes, with a group of college student making a cheap horror film in the woods of Pennsylvania, when they hear the first broadcasts of something too incredible to believe--the dead are coming back to life. Idealistic filmmaker Jason (Joshua Close) feels it is his responsibility to record everything he sees, and then upload it to the Internet, so all the world can see the truth the media hides. No one seems to understand why Jason is doing what he is doing--and some don't even believe the dead are really coming back to life--but that does not stop anyone from following along on the merry movie making expedition. And even when the threat proves itself to be real, and the crew's numbers quickly diminish thanks to the living dead, Jason continues to record, and the others continue to yell at him for being an insensitive jerk, but they still follow him like yapping dogs.
I will be the first to admit to being a diehard fan of Romero, to such an extent that I love Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead period. No excuses. No apologies. I am, for better or worse, one of those blind loyalists who is willing to forgive a lot. But there are a few too many things in Diary of the Dead that can't be overlooked or forgiven, and the result is a film that may be able to hold its own against the zombie flicks of lesser directors, but can't stand up with Romero's other four zombie films.
Perhaps the most obvious problem with Diary of the Dead is the actual script. Romero's script reads like it was written in a hurry, providing only a handful of memorable moments and relatively few likeable characters, with most of the cast coming across like a generic ensemble of rejects from a Final Destination movie. Among the living there are no characters to really care about--accept for a second group of survivors that shows up briefly in the second act--and even the living dead are not developed in any sort of way. At least Day of the Dead gave us Bub and Land gave us Big Daddy, but there are no zombies like that this time around. Romero is notorious for having stupid characters in his zombie films, primarily because the films themselves are about the fall of mankind through its own stupidity and inability to communicate. But those stupid characters have always existed within the framework of an intelligent film. These characters however are just plain stupid, and as expendable as they are generic.
One of the things that has always set Romero's work apart is that his zombie films are always social statements about the world. And while he has never been one to be subtle in what he's saying, he has certainly never been as obvious as he is with Diary of the Dead, driving home it's scathing indictment of the media with all the subtlety of Spike Lee. But the problem with what Romero is trying to say is that he simply does not say it that well. It is as if the filmmaker has felt the need to dumb-down the delivery of his message for a savvy audience that thinks it is smarter than it really is. (Which may in hindsight make the film smarter than it really it is.)
Unfortunately, there are other parts of Diary of the Dead that also have some serious problems. The third act is just plain bad, and the sort of filmmaking you might expect to see in the latest installment of some B-grade horror franchise being directed by someone with no pedigree. But this is George Romero, and he is capable of so much better than a silly, self-referential sequence that is meant to have an element of satire, which is sadly so obscure you need someone sitting next to you to tell you, "This is supposed to be funny."
The biggest problems facing Diary of the Dead, however, are not even on the screen. The first problem with the film is Max Brooks' brilliant book World War Z, which has changed the stakes for all zombie storytelling. Romero invented a particular genre with Night of the Living Dead, which has been built upon by hundreds of movies and books in the ensuing decades; but World War Z is the culmination of all those other genre entries, realized in a literary medium, and taken to a higher level. Just as Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead are benchmarks, by which all zombie movies, comics and books have been measured, so to is World War Z.
The other problem with Diary of the Dead is Cloverfield, which uses the same storytelling conceit--as did Blair Witch Project, Cannibal Holocaust, and quite a few others--to a slightly better effect. Coming on the heels of Cloverfield, Diary of the Dead simply suffers all the more, in the same sort of way Cloverfield suffered from coming so quickly after The Mist. And while all three films are very different, there are enough key similarities, be it technical execution, story or theme, that it is easy to see how one diminishes another.
Despite the obvious and unfortunate problems to be found in Diary of the Dead, it is not a terrible film, especially as far as zombie movies go. It is certainly better than all of the Resident Evil movies. And if you were to remove from the equation zombie films with overt comedic sensibilities (i.e. Shaun of the Dead, Return of the Living Dead, Dead Alive), or movies where the zombies aren't really zombies (28 Days Later), you would actually find that Diary of the Dead ranks up there with the better entries in the genre. The ironic thing is that the best entries in the zombie genre all come from George Romero; but rather than creating a film that fits nicely into his epic vision of a world that has given way to the flesh-eating living dead, Romero has instead made a movie that feels like an imitation of a Romero movie.