Written and Directed by: George A. Romero
Reviewed by: Brett G.
George A. Romero needs no introduction to the seasoned horror fan. After bursting onto the scene with his 1968 debut, Night of the Living Dead, Romero has become a veritable legend in the horror genre, thanks in no small part to the genre he helped to define: the zombie film. While Romero wasnít the inventor of the genre, one can argue that he pretty much wrote the definitive book on it over the course of 30 years, as he would return to his roots three times after his debut beginning with 1978ís Dawn of the Dead, considered by many to be Romeroís best film. This was followed by 1985ís Day of the Dead, which served as a conclusion to Romeroís series for nearly twenty years, as Romeroís idea for a fourth film (at various points called Twilight of the Dead and Dead Reckoning) languished in development hell. This film was finally realized as Land of the Dead, one of the most underrated horror films released in the last five years. It didnít take Romero nearly as long to go back to the undead well for his fifth Dead venture, as Diary of the Dead lands just three years after the release of the fourth film.
Being a huge fan of Romeroís previous films, I was excited for the release of Diary of the Dead, especially when it was revealed that the film would be unconventionally filmed from the perspective of college students who are experiencing an outbreak of the undead. The premise is simple, as it can be summed up as The Blair Witch Project meets Night of the Living Dead. Unfortunately, the film wasnít given a wide theatrical release earlier this year, but itís now been released on DVD by the Weinsteinsí Dimension Extreme label, which has been responsible for releasing recent films such as Inside and Teeth. The curious decision to limit the filmís theatrical release was a bit of a red flag, but I ultimately chalked it up to the fact that Land of the Dead didnít exactly light the box office on fire. That fact, coupled with the Weinsteinsí recent track record at the box office (especially last yearís Grindhouse fiasco), had me convinced that Diary of the Dead would still deliver even without a theatrical release, so I rushed out to buy this Tuesday.
As previously mentioned, the filmís premise is fairly simple. Instead of belonging to the continuity of the previous four Dead films, Diary is a stand-alone tale that documents a new outbreak of the undead. We find out early on that we are actually viewing a film within a film, as we are watching the final product of a student documentary filmed during the outbreak. Thus, we get everything from the perspective of hand-held cameras in the same manner as the aforementioned Blair Witch Project and the more recently released Cloverfield. The narrative itself is straightforward, as we follow the group of college students as they move from place to place to survive the undead plague. Along the way, there are plenty of Romeroís signatures: human melodrama, socio-political commentary, and plenty of bloodletting.
However, does each of these three match up to Romeroís previous entries? Not so much. We have plenty of melodrama and in-fighting in the group, but none of it rings as true as it does in the previous films. This may be due to the fact that this is the first Romero zombie film whose protagonists are predominantly young, college-aged students. Such a choice seems to skew the film towards that sort of demographic, and the film rarely feels like anymore than a standard teen horror film. There are moments where the film feels more mature and on the level of Romeroís previous films (namely the various montages that are strewn throughout the narrative). I think that most of this rests on the acting, which isnít particularly strong. Itís solid to be sure, but thereís no sense of gravitas that previous Romero protagonists have brought to their respective films.
As for the socio-political commentary, itís definitely there, but it feels more half-baked and less subtle than it ever has before. Even though I was a fan of Land of the Dead, Romeroís politics were anything but subtle there, and that trend continues here, as the protagonists practically spell out Romeroís various messages for us, which is something Romero never had to resort to in both Night and Dawn. If racism and consumerism were Romeroís targets there, whatís his target here? The answer to that question is multifaceted, as Romero tackles obsession, the media, the worth of the human race, and even societyís reaction to major events. I think itís fair to say that the Hurricane Katrina disaster and its fallout were very much on Romeroís mind here, as we see a lot of interpersonal and even racial dynamics play throughout one segment in particular.
As you can see, thereís a lot going on here, but none of these are particularly well developed or focused. While itís nice to have a horror film that makes you think every now and then, the messages here seem more like lip service more than anything. Itís almost as if Romero put it in because we expect that from him at this point, and itís not nearly as effective as it has been before. In fact, the film almost plays out as a sort of ďRomeroís Greatest HitsĒ at times, as we visit a country farmhouse, encounter unstable military personnel, find a zombie pushing a shopping cart and see people capitalizing on the zombie outbreak. While the final images are indeed haunting in a very Romero-esque way, I would have to say that the film didnít quite earn it, if that makes any sense.
So, even though the dramatic elements are a bit lacking, is the film still fun? I think so. The film lacks any memorable action sequences, and itís not as gory as previous Romero films, but itís still entertaining enough because you get invested enough in the characters to care about their journey. Interestingly enough, the handheld camcorder gimmick doesnít really affect the film at all; in fact, itís easy to forget about it until the film has moments to remind you that itís there. If not for the filmís overall purpose (delivering the truth about the zombie outbreak that conventional media outlets wonít show), the camcorder gimmick would be altogether unnecessary, as Romero doesnít use it in a very innovative fashion. It doesnít create the immersive experience of Cloverfield, and it ultimately does end up feeling like a gimmick. Though the gore isnít as up to par with previous Romero films, there are some memorable gory bits that are worth seeing. Overall, the film is entertaining, but itís quite a step down from the previous Dead entries. It doesnít manage to truly capture that apocalyptic, yet claustrophobic feel of the other series. The film tries ever so hard to do so, and it almost does at times, but it canít sustain it throughout.
Ultimately, I would have to say that Diary of the Dead is above average, and it certainly doesnít feel like a direct-to-video film. However, Iím not sure if seeing it in the theaters would have altered my perception much. Romero has been pretty consistent throughout the years, but this is quite a drop from Land of the Dead, which actually felt like a truly ambitious Romero film. This, however, feels pretty standard, as if Romero is just going through the motions at times. Still, a mediocre Romero is better than many horror directors these days, and you can rest assured that it's miles better than the recently released Day of the Dead remake. The DVD is loaded with special features, including a commentary by Romero himself. Thereís also a feature-length documentary on the making of the film along with some shorter featurettes about the film. The presentation is just what youíd expect from a major release these days, but Iíd have to say that the soundtrack is a lot more subdued than I expected. Still, itís more than adequate. Even though I rushed out and bought it this past week, I wouldnít recommend doing the same just yet. Iím sure this one will hit below the $10 mark before long, so, for now, I would simply suggest that you Rent it!
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