GEORGE A. ROMERO'S DIARY OF THE DEADR
In comic-book lingo, George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead, the fifth installment in the writer-director's zombie cycle, would be described as a reboot—a moment in a long-running series when the continuity clock is turned back to zero and the story begins again, with some subtle (and a few not-so-subtle) tweaks to the universe we knew and loved.
After four decades spent chronicling the zombie apocalypse that began in 1968's Night of the Living Dead, it makes sense that Romero would be intrigued by the idea of starting his signature franchise over from scratch. Thus, Diary opens on day one of the undead uprising, with a television news crew capturing footage of three murder victims getting up from their gurneys and snacking on any warm body within reach. Just as you settle in for routine zombie action, a voiceover reveals Romero's new agenda: This footage wasn't broadcast on television—it was uploaded to a file-sharing website for the world to see. Not only that, but these images aren't part of Diary of the Dead. Instead, we're watching The Death of Death, a documentary about the zombie attacks that was shot by a young film student named Jason Creed and completed by his girlfriend Debra after Jason's untimely demise. (Don't worry, this isn't a spoiler.) Jason was in the process of making his own low-budget horror film when the real-life nightmare started, leading him and his small cast and crew to pile in a Winnebago and head off in search of somewhere, anywhere that was still safe. In accordance with Jason's wishes, Debra has made his posthumous directorial debut available on MySpace so that survivors can learn the real story about what went down, not the sanitized version that was reported by the mainstream media.
That's right, folks—at 68, Romero has finally discovered this newfangled invention called the Internet and he thinks it's pretty darn cool. And you know what? So is the movie. Released on the heels of more high-profile first-person point-of-view experiments like Cloverfield and Redacted, Diary could have felt like an also-ran, but it actually improves on both of those films. It's less of a chore to sit through than Redacted and it doesn't suffer from some of the logistical questions that nagged at you once Cloverfield's intense thrills wore off. That film asked you to believe that you were watching unedited footage ripped from a camcorder that magically never ran out of battery power. In contrast, Diary informs you right off the bat that the movie you are about to see has been assembled after the fact, and throughout, Jason is shown recharging his camera, often at some incredibly inconvenient moments. The first-person approach is still a gimmick, obviously, but there's a level of realism here that indicates the filmmakers have really thought the premise through.
Romero's great strength as a director is his unwillingness to repeat himself and, in fact, each entry in the Dead franchise differs wildly from the others in tone, if not necessarily content. Night of the Living Dead is a nightmarish survival story; Dawn of the Dead is a savage satire; Day of the Dead is a blistering condemnation of the military, and Land of the Dead is a critique of class warfare. With Diary, Romero attempts something even more ambitious: This is an apocalyptic road movie that owes more to an end-of-times epic like Cormac McCarthy's The Road than any of his own zombie films. (Interestingly, with its descriptions of babies roasted on spits and cellars filled with humans waiting to be eaten, The Road is ten times more horrifying than Diary, a fact that Romero is no doubt entirely aware of.) Societal collapse has always been a theme of the Dead series, but usually it plays out in isolated areas—a farmhouse, a mall, a military bunker or a heavily fortified skyscraper. Romero has broadened his scope this time around, sending his characters on a desperate flight across Pennsylvania as the world goes to pieces around them.
Some will no doubt complain about the movie's lack of scares, and it's true that Diary isn't paced like a routine horror film. Not that Romero stints on the gore; there are a number of great zombie kills here, the best of which involves a pair of charged defibrillator paddles being applied to a zombie's skull—can we say exploding eyeballs? But the director is clearly interested in posing more philosophical questions to the audience. Why is this generation so enamored of filming themselves 24/7? (The line, "If it isn't on camera, it didn't happen" is repeated more than once.) Is Jason a hero for documenting these attacks or should he have put the damn camera down and helped his friends? Is the Internet the only source of truth or just a hangout for self-absorbed narcissists? In pursuing these lines of thought, Romero occasionally forgets that he's making a movie, not delivering a college lecture. Some of the dialogue is so ponderous and preachy, you sympathize with the actors as they struggle to make it sound natural.
As a reboot, though, Diary of the Dead is largely successful. More important, it has revived Romero's creative energies; the director is currently planning a Diary follow-up set in this new zombie-plagued universe. Here's to another four decades of George A. Romero's patented blend of sociology, satire and flesh-eating corpses.