DVD Catch Up: Diary of the Dead(8/30/2008)

Almost no one can claim to be the king of an entire sub-genre quite the way George A. Romero does.  Not only did he undeniably invent the zombie genre as we know it with the classic Night of the Living Dead, he’s just about lead the zombie pack throughout the genre’s history.  His zombie movies are mostly low budgeted affairs that mix gore, social commentary, more gore, statements about how humans behave under pressure, and more gore.  Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978) are both classics of the genre, unfortunately the two zombie films he’s made in the meantime have been at the very best flawed.  Now, only three years after his last effort (2005’s Land of the Dead) he’s come back with another zombie film in his “of the dead” series. 

The film is a mockumentary about a group of film students who find themselves in the middle of a zombie infestation that’s taking over the world.  These are pretty much the same group of indistinguishable college aged people that populate most horror movies since Halloween: a few couples, a nerd, and a Donald Pleasence-like older guy for good measure.  These film students were out in the woods shooting a low budget horror movie, when a zombie infestation broke out, given the circumstances they decided to take their cameras and document the event.  The film follows their journey.

Many have compared the film to The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, but it’s really going for something kind of different.  Both of those movies worked on the gimmick of “found footage,” suggesting that the camera was the only one alive to tell the story.   Diary of the Dead, however is a mockumentary that has supposedly been edited together by the characters who shot it, as is evident by a voiceover from one of the characters.  Unlike the previously mentioned films, this is not shot on a camcorder or 16mm camera but rather on professional digital cameras by people who are trying to make an actual documentary rather than by a bunch of scared people who forgot to turn off their cameras while desperately running away from monsters. 

With all this in mind one gathers that Diary of the Dead is not using the mockumentay format to give people the illusion of reality as Blair Witch did, or to give the film visceral intensity as Cloverfield did, in fact I don’t think Romero used the format for the film’s horror movie aspects at all.  Rather, I think it was exclusively done so that he could make a comment on the “Youtube culture.”  Of young people disillusioned by mainstream media and their willingness to document their every move as if anyone else cared (and apparently they do). 

One would have thought that George Romero would have had to tone down his political content over the years as he seeks mainstream acceptance, but strangely the opposite has happened and each of his films has become exponentially more obviously political.  The politics in Night of the Living Dead was subtle to the point that one wonders if it was even intentional, even the oft-discussed African American protagonist was white in the film’s original script.  The politics in Dawn of the Dead was certainly intentional, but it was only there for those who wanted to look for it, the messages about commercialism would have gone right over the heads of those just looking for a gory zombie flick.  By 2005’s Land of the Dead Romero had stopped being interested in actually scaring anyone and was primarily using zombies to make political statements.  But with Diary of the Dead he’s abandoned any slight hint of subtlety with his message.  Here there is no effort to conceal his intentions at all, the characters spell out every point and just in case you still don’t get it he has the voice-over come in and explain his points further. 

To be fair, satire is never a subtle medium, but Romero’s unwillingness to trust the audience enough to figure out what he’s trying to say is a serious problem.  The film feels like it was made to sell its points to some very stupid people, people who probably aren’t that interested in zombie satire in the first place and just want some more head explosions.  As such the movie doesn’t please audiences looking to think or audiences looking for visceral thrills. 

The characters here aren’t very well developed at all, but that’s sort of to be expected from a horror movie at this point.  Unfortunately the characters are also pretty bad as one dimensional characters go as well.  These are broad stereotypes, they don’t act at all like real people behave and they aren’t well acted either.  The two most egregious examples are a blonde chick from Texas, who talks like Annie Oakley and says “don’t mess with Texas” for no reason on two occasions in the film and a film professor who exists to act grizzled and jaded while spewing ridiculous lines like some kind of Werner Herzog wannabe.  Silly as those two are, they’re at least memorable, the rest of these idiots are just boring and exist mainly to be eaten by zombies.

Silly in it’s satire, lame as a horror film, and uninteresting as a story; Diary of the Dead never really works on any level.  However, as bad as it can be it’s never really boring.  The film is at least watchable and Romero should probably be given some credit for at least trying to make something different than the average studio horror movie.  If it’s on HBO or something I suppose this would be worth checking out for Romero completists, all others need not apply.

** out of four

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