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Diary of the Dead

The Weinstein Company // R // October 21, 2008
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted November 5, 2008 | E-mail the Author
"...the hell's with that camera anyway?
"Uh, home movies."
"Who's gonna be left to watch?"

Land of the Dead was
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a grueling experience for George Romero. The biting cold of a Canadian winter took a heavy toll on his health, his marriage crumbled during the shoot, and studio beancounters and junior executives leered over his shoulder, second-guessing his every move. Romero stepped outside the Hollywood meat grinder for his fifth zombie flick, returning to his low budget, fiercely independent roots that decades earlier had redefined the shape of horror with Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead.

Diary of the Dead is set in the present but reboots the franchise to the earliest days of the outbreak. A gaggle of college students in Pennsylvania are hammering out a schlocky mummy flick for a class project when word first leaks out about the dead returning to life. Director Jason Creed (Josh Close) keeps his high-def camera running as the cast and crew pile into a Winnebago, hitting the road in the hopes of finding some sort of sanctuary closer to home. At first, they're in disbelief -- these people are still shambling around...are they really dead? Could it just be some sort of virus or chemical attack? The world seems nearly deserted -- no one's on the road, the sidewalks are empty, and even hospitals have been abandoned -- and with each stop they make, the students are swarmed by more and more of the undead. Unable to rely on the manipulative mass media, which is recutting footage from earlier attacks to put a happy face on the chaos, Creed and his classmates ravenously seek out as much raw material as they can find online and upload their own footage of the world in its death throes.

Diary of the Dead may be the title on the front of the box, but one of its central conceits is that it's really The Death of Death, a documentary started by Creed but completed by his girlfriend Debra (Michelle Morgan). One of the fundamental problems with Diary of the Dead is that it's too convincing as a movie cut together on a PC by some twentysomething film student. Romero may have forty years of feature films under his belt, but Diary of the Dead is surprisingly amateurish. Nothing about it really works: the poor casting, reams of clunky, repetitive dialogue, a cringingly bad sense of humor, a total lack of dread or suspense, and some of Romero's clumsiest proselytizing yet.

While the cast seems cheerful and likable enough in the extras on this Blu-ray disc, in the movie itself...? It's like a local theater company production of Brigadoon, only with...y'know, zombies. Too many of the performances are stilted and artificial, a couple of 'em lean on cringeworthy accents, and the characters across the board are devoid of any real personality. Diary of the Dead isn't a splatterfest, so not only do these film students (and their Mmmmmaster Thespian! professor) avoid doing anything all that compelling when they're alive, but they aren't even ripped apart or munched on in a particularly interesting way when they're knocked off. Too many of the characters are either forgettable or outright unlikable, especially the pricks who won't put down their cameras when their friends are being mauled by the undead.

The government and mass media can't be trusted! Our cameras are
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our eyes now, and we don't stop to help -- we stop to look! Shooting with a camera and shooting with a gun really aren't all that different! Romero has never really been all that subtle about the social commentary he sprinkles into his movies, but it's embarrassing in Diary of the Dead. Its messages are highlighted in seven different colors and quadruple-underlined in clumsy, flat, repetitive narration. Instead of Romero deftly incorporating his points into the story, he just has these characters yammering on about 'em relentlessly. I mean, Debra belts out the same "if you didn't get it on camera, did it really happen? Did it? DID IT?!?!?!?!" speech twice, pretty much word for word. The same few arguments are repeated over and over and over and over again to the point of exhaustion. There's subtext, and then there's...y'know, text, and even with those three-inch-thick Harry Caray glasses, I'm not sure Romero can see the difference anymore.

Diary of the Dead builds to the meekest climax of any of Romero's zombie movies, and it's the only one where hell never actually breaks loose. This movie might have the lowest body count of any of the Deads, and what little gore there is tends to be obscured, off-camera, or shot at a distance. That's okay -- Night of the Living Dead wasn't exactly sopping with barrel drums of blood either -- but Night... was still tense and unsettling even without a six-figure effects budget. Diary of the Dead...? No. There's no sense of dread or unease. The claustrophobia that defined Romero's other zombie movies has been deliberately tossed out, and the more expansive Last Man on Earth approach that replaces it isn't all that effective. There are too few zombies for them to feel like much of a threat, and Romero can't even muster a single solid jump scare. The movie also leans excessively on digital effects that don't blend in with the live-action visuals at all. As a horror flick, Diary of the Dead is as limp and lifeless as the handful of zombies shambling around in front of the camera.

So much of Diary of the Dead made me want to curl up and
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bawl, like a YouTube video the students find about the outbreak spreading to Japan. "Tokyo! Very bad here! Verrrry bad! Tokyo!" Yikes. The only way that could've been more stereotypical would be if that broad had a tuna roll in her mouth and were banging away at a gong. Romero makes a pretty ridiculous callback at the end that illogically requires a multimillionaire who's been lounging around his folks' palatial estate for a couple of days straight to be wearing the same ratty mummy costume he was when the movie opened, and it builds up to a Southern belle whacking a zombie over the head with a stick, shouting "Don't mess with Texas!" in some half-assed Blanche DuBois twang, and then a couple of banjos kick in and start strumming Dixie or what-the-hell-ever. ????? Romero goes for a lot of laughs in Diary of the Dead, and its sense of humor sputters and stutters for pretty much an hour and a half straight.

Some of the batshit craziness works, though. I mean, the climax of Dawn of the Dead had a pie fight fer cryin' out loud, and Diary...'s stand-out sequence revolves around a deaf Amish guy who doesn't really seem all that fazed by the dead roaming the earth, not that he has much to fret about with a stick of dynamite in one hand and a scythe in the other. A few of the other highlights include a head being chopped clean down the middle, an undead clown attacking a birthday party, a zombie noggin being melted by hydrochloric acid, eyes squirting out after being zapped by defibrillator paddles, and a pint-sized ghoul skewered by an arrow.

I think there might be something salvagable somewhere in here, and I'd be curious to see if any fan edits pop up down the line that snip out some of the same bits of footage that are recycled over and over again, lose the slow motion and goofy Unsolved Mysteries-circa-1988 editing effects, axe Debra's flat, lifeless narration, and ditch a score that sounds like it'd been hammered out on a yard sale Casio over a weekend. As it is, though, Diary of the Dead is a failed experiment and easily the worst of Romero's five zombie movies. Oh well. Land...'s really not looking that bad now, does it?

Video: George
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Romero mentions in the disc's audio commentary that Diary of the Dead was pieced together from 79 different sources of footage, dusting off soft, noisy news clips dating back who knows how many years and even grabbing a few shots with a mock-camera phone and jittery, black-and-white security cameras. The overwhelming majority of the movie's runtime was shot with fairly high-end high definition video cameras, though, and this Blu-ray disc sports a direct digital transfer in 1080p. Definition and detail can be uneven, but the bulk of Diary of the Dead is crisp, clean, and clear. It's a pretty huge step up over the standard definition clips scattered around the disc's extras, boasting an especially strong sense of depth and dimensionality.

The image can get kind of noisy under lower light -- that's pretty normal for HD video cameras -- but it's not heavy enough to distract. Because Diary of the Dead doesn't bother with the fourth wall, it deliberately fiddles around with the focus, and obviously the use of so many disparate sources of footage keeps the whole reference quality thing far out of arm's reach. The palette tends to be dialed down as well, which again seems like a comfortable fit for this sort of approach, and those subdued colors are bolstered by deep, punchy blacks.

Even though Diary of the Dead is inherently going to look uneven in high-def, I'll admit that the photography is crisper and more polished than I went in expecting, and it definitely benefits from the beefier resolution that Blu-ray can serve up. Diary of the Dead is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and has been encoded with VC-1.

Audio: Diary
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of the Dead
is packing a 24-bit Dolby TrueHD soundtrack, although the movie's kind of subdued approach doesn't really give it a chance to take full advantage. It's set against the backdrop of the earliest days of the outbreak; the streets are silent and barren but not teeming with armies of the undead quite yet, so atmosphere tends to be kind of light. Some of the bigger setpieces do make more aggressive use of the surrounds, particularly the moaning and pounding as the zombies swarm Samuel's rickety barn. Playing up the whole World of Tomorrow! angle, Romero bridges certain scenes with the sounds of fingers clacking against keyboards and electronic squawks in every speaker. Bass response is okay, but there aren't that many effects that scream out for a low-frequency wallop -- Sammy chucking a stick of dynamite at a gaggle of zombies is one of the few -- and the movie doesn't lean on big, booming stings in the score to punctuate its scares. The characters in Diary of the Dead may not be lugging around mic packs or enormous booms, but Romero's sound crew isn't hamstrung by the concept of the movie, and the recording of the dialogue and sound effects is consistently clear and full-bodied. It's not all that adventurous a mix or anything, but Diary of the Dead's lossless soundtrack fits the subdued, quasi-documentary-like approach to the movie well enough, and that's good enough for me.

Diary of the Dead also piles on Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks in English and French. Subtitles are offered in English (SDH) and Spanish.

Extras: This Blu-ray disc carries over the extras from the DVD that was released a few months back, and all of 'em are in standard definition.
  • Audio commentary: Phoning in from Paris, George Romero is joined in the commentary by director of photography Adam Swica and editor Michael Doherty. This is kind of an average track, but it's still a decent listen, explaining why there's so much digital blood, pointing out some of the edits that sidestep around the movie's verité concept, and touching on why there's really not much room for splatter in Diary of the Dead. Some of the other highlights include revealing who was actually lugging the cameras around during the shoot, Romero toying with the idea of not clearly showing Jason on-camera until the tail-end of the movie, and rattling off some of the other famous folks who chime in with background vocal cameos.
  • For the Record (80 min.): This feature-length look at the making of Diary of the Dead is chopped up into five separate featurettes.
    • Master of the Dead (13 min.): Romero chats about his return to indie filmmaking, the freedom and challenges of shooting a movie in this kinda-sorta experimental way, its evolution from a TV series and an even lower-budget student film, and trying to strike while his story about the 'media octopus' of the blogosphere and all was still pipin' hot.
    • Into the Camera (17 min.): This is really just the movie's lead actors piling in front of the camera, one after another, to speak about their characters and comment on how they approached their roles. The cast is so likable here that I have to admit to halfway feeling guilty for trashing their performances.
    • You Look Dead (11 min.): KNB's Greg Nicotero and the crew at Gaslight Studios dive into Diary of the Dead's extensive make-up effects work, including tests for a zombie-head being split down the middle, the challenges of tackling effects in a movie with revealingly wide angles and little-to-no cutting, and Nicotero's updated concept for the look of the undead.
    • A New "Spin" on Death (19 min.): A couple of the guys from Spin FX run through what went into a long list of the movie's CG effects, from tracking a melting head to piecing together a digital swimming pool teeming with zombies.
    • A World Gone Mad (20 min.): The last of these featurettes touches on the look of Diary of the Dead, including the unconventional approach to its cinematography, the mindset behind the wardrobe that the cast is stuck wearing for pretty much the entire movie, and some intriguing notes about the production design.
  • The Roots (2 min.): Romero
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    speaks very briefly about turning back the clock in this movie to the first night of the living dead. It comes across as just another online promotional piece and doesn't really say anything that's not covered in three or four other places on this disc.
  • The First Week (4 min.): Red Shirt Pictures' Michael Felsher kept a video diary for his first week on the set, although it's way too short to delve into any real detail. Felsher chats up some of the cast and crew, flings his camera around during the filming of Diary...'s exteriors, and shows just how nasty the weather got in Toronto in the early days of the shoot. I like Felsher and have dug a lot of the extras he's put together, but this is just too quick-'n-cursory to really stand out.
  • Celebrity audio cameos (5 min.): Romero recorded a few of his celebrity pals for some of the movie's background chatter, and the raw, unedited takes of Guillermo del Toro, Simon Pegg, and Stephen King on the phone are served up here. King stands out the most as he belts out his best radio preacher.
  • Character confessionals (20 min.): Debra, Eliot, Tony, and Tracey do the whole reality show confessional thing for five minutes a pop, pouring their hearts out to the camera as they struggle to come to grips with the world crumbling around them. These are pieced together from a few mock-sessions, with a couple of the characters gabbing about shooting their mummy flick before the news breaks about the rise of the undead, and they gradually get more and more frantic as it dawns on them that the world they knew is dead and rotting. It's almost deliberately not that insightful about these four characters -- this was all taped as part of a promotional package -- but if you want to see more of 'em...hey! There you go.
  • MySpace contest winners (11 min.): The Weinstein Company sponsored a fan short contest on MySpace, and the top five picks have been packed on here. Only the first two are all that serious: "The Final Day", as one lone survivor tries to find some sort of sanctuary in a frozen wasteland, and "Deader Living Through Chemistry", which follows a handful of friends holed up in an apartment and struggling with the outbreak. The other three are comedies or at least sport a dark sense of humor. "Opening Night of the Living Dead" is about a bunch of zombie pals who hit up a movie theater to watch...what else?...a zombie flick, and like Romero's movies, there's some social commentary sprinkled around in there too. Kinda. Clocking in under two minutes, "Run for Your Life" is the breeziest of these shorts, anchored around a couple of runners who get a hell of a workout when they pick the wrong street to trot down. My favorite of the bunch is "& Teller", which has Penn's silent partner keeping a video diary -- in character! -- as perhaps the last man on Earth.
Conclusion: After twentysomething years of bitching about Day of the Dead, now gorehounds can point to this amateurish, tedious experiment as the worst of George Romero's zombie flicks. I couldn't stomach...yeah, pretty much anything about Diary of the Dead, but fans of the movie ought to be pretty impressed with the package The Weinstein Company has put together on Blu-ray, packing more than three and a half hours of extras, a pretty slick 1080p presentation, and a beefy lossless soundtrack. Not recommended sight-unseen, tho'. Skip It.
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