The George A. Romero Zombie Cycle Part 5: Diary of the Dead

The George A. Romero Zombie Cycle

Wel­come to The George A. Romero Zom­bie Cycle Film Fes­ti­val. Join The Dork Report in revis­it­ing all five canon­i­cal episodes in the orig­i­nal epic zom­bie saga:

Diary of the Dead movie poster


This is not an opin­ion you’re like­ly to find any­where else on the inter­net, but we here at The Dork Report are pre­pared to argue that Diary of the Dead is the best of the entire George A. Romero zom­bie cycle so far. It sports the best spe­cial effects, is the least repet­i­tive or trig­ger-hap­py, and is a wel­come return to the focused social satire of the first (Night) and sec­ond (Dawn) install­ments.

Curi­ous­ly, Diary of the Dead is the first to break the con­ti­nu­ity of Romero’s ongo­ing sto­ry of soci­ety in zom­bie melt­down. The first four films fol­low a rough chronol­o­gy: Night of the Liv­ing Dead depicts the ini­tial wave as seen by a small group caught in a coun­try farm­house. Dawn of the Dead takes place a few weeks lat­er, show­ing the break­down of cities (and even the media). Day of the Dead fea­tured an iso­lat­ed group sur­viv­ing in iso­la­tion as the world was long since over­run by the undead. Land of the Dead shows the ulti­mate gat­ed com­mu­ni­ty fall to an evolved zom­bie horde. But Diary of the Dead is a return to the ear­ly days of the out­break, a more fer­tile ground for sto­ry­telling: you nev­er get tired of human char­ac­ters wit­ness­ing such hor­rors for the first time.

Diary of the DeadSav­ing the human race, one non­fic­tion doc­u­men­tary short sub­ject at a time

The rules are still the same: sim­ply, the dead don’t stay dead. The zom­bie epi­dem­ic is not due to a plague or virus, which was the potent con­tri­bu­tion of Dan­ny Boyle’s 28 Days Lat­er to the zom­bie genre. Arguably, Romero’s con­cept is more bleak. A virus might be mit­i­gat­ed or even cured, but if any­body, any­body at all, that dies will revive as a unin­tel­li­gent car­niv­o­rous mon­ster that feels no pain and nev­er tires, it can­not be stopped. If human­i­ty is to some­how regroup and sur­vive, it will for­ev­er have to burn or decap­i­tate any­one that ever dies.

Diary of the Dead opens on a group of Uni­ver­si­ty of Pitts­burgh film stu­dents mak­ing a tongue-in-cheeck mum­my movie in the woods of Penn­syl­va­nia, under the guid­ance of alco­holic Pro­fes­sor Maxwell (Scott Went­worth). Many of these kids are priv­i­leged, but judg­ing from the events of Romero’s oth­er zom­bie films, we know that the lux­u­ries of the rich are of lit­tle worth against the liv­ing dead. Obvi­ous­ly none of these movie afi­ciona­dos have ever seen a zom­bie flick. One of them, Eliot (Joe Dini­col), wears Coke-bot­tle glass­es in an appar­ent homage to Romero’s famous spec­ta­cles. Bud­ding direc­tor Jason Creed (Joshua Close) looks down his nose on the com­mer­cial hor­ror genre, and has the not-so-secret ambi­tion to become a doc­u­men­tary film­mak­er. But Jason gets his chance to do both, as he doc­u­ments their their flight from a real-life plague of zom­bies. Jason’s footage, lat­er com­plet­ed by girl­friend Debra (Michelle Mor­gan) com­pris­es a film with­in a film: “The Death of Death.”

Diary of the DeadRomero’s scathing indict­ment of our bro­ken health care sys­tem, or just some more zom­bie gore?

In a world in which near­ly every­one car­ries a cell­phone cam­era around in their pock­et, “shoot me” can have a dif­fer­ent mean­ing than you usu­al­ly hear in zom­bie movies. With a batch of young film­mak­ers doc­u­ment­ing a real-life tale of hor­ror using new portable video tech­nol­o­gy, Diary of the Dead super­fi­cial­ly resem­bles Clover­field (read The Dork Report review). One of Cloverfield’s most telling moments showed a group of New York­ers instinc­tive­ly react­ing to the hor­ri­ble sight of a chunk of the Stat­ue of Lib­er­ty hurtling into the mid­dle of a street by whip­ping out their cell phone cam­eras and tak­ing pic­tures to trans­mit to their friends. But Diary of the Dead’s true inspi­ra­tion is actu­al­ly a bit old­er; it rips off the basic plot of The Blair Witch Project, in which a batch of stu­dent film­mak­ers set off to shoot a hor­ror film in the woods and acci­den­tal­ly stum­ble onto the real thing. Clover­field became increas­ing­ly implau­si­ble as the flee­ing teenagers cling to their cam­eras through­out their tra­vails. In con­trast, Diary of the Dead sur­pris­ing­ly sports more believ­able psy­chol­o­gy than Clover­field, con­stant­ly ques­tion­ing its char­ac­ters’ com­pul­sion to doc­u­ment every­thing. Indeed, it’s one of the biggest themes of the movie.

Diary’s mix of themes also includes the return of the media as a promi­nent pres­ence for the first time since Night and Dawn. In what I felt was one the film’s only dra­mat­ic mis­steps, the char­ac­ters first learn of the zom­bie break­out via radio (real­ly? radio? in an age of instant text mes­sag­ing?), and are con­vinced of the incred­i­ble news reports a lit­tle too quick­ly. But per­haps their imme­di­ate accep­tance of what the voic­es of author­i­ty tell them is one of Romero’s points.

Two char­ac­ters in Dawn of the Dead were mem­bers of the tra­di­tion­al media of broad­cast news. But in this case, some­thing only pos­si­ble in the 21st cen­tu­ry inter­net age, the Diary of the Dead kids are able to become part of the medi­um itself. Jason starts out as a frus­trat­ed doc­u­men­tar­i­an mak­ing a sil­ly com­mer­cial mum­my film, but giv­en the chance he choos­es to doc­u­ment. As cit­i­zen jour­nal­ists, they edit their footage on lap­tops and post to YouTube and MySpace. They also down­load oth­er clips from around the world, pro­vid­ing the film with what are basi­cal­ly a series of short vignettes. They watch as U.S. SWAT clean out zom­bies from an apart­ment com­plex, and as coun­ter­parts on the oth­er side of the globe doc­u­ment an over­run Japan. One of the spook­i­est clips is a brief shot from the point of view of a truck dri­ving under a bridge from which some­one has hung them­selves. After the truck cab jos­tles the corpse, it starts to move.

Three radio mono­logues were voiced by hor­ror genre lumi­nar­ies Guiller­mo Del Toro (whose ghost sto­ry Devil’s Back­bone shares some ele­ments of the zom­bie genre), Simon Pegg (who paid homage to the genre as com­e­dy with Shawn of the Dead), and Stephen King (bril­liant as a heart­land evan­gel­i­cal preach­er: “Get down on your &$#@ing knees!”). There’s also a fun­ny bit fea­tur­ing a badass Amish guy, who’s deaf but handy with a scythe and dyna­mite.

The end­ing to this very short movie (a lit­tle over 90 min­utes) is a bit abrupt. But giv­en that it is nar­rat­ed by Debra, it is pos­si­ble she has sur­vived beyond what we’ve seen, long enough to release “The Death of Death” in some form, per­haps after humans have reclaimed the plan­et. One might imag­ine Diary’s premise would lend itself to a low­er bud­get than the grandiose Land of the Dead, which starred actu­al stars like Den­nis Hop­per and John Leguizom­bie — sor­ry — John Leguizamo. But Diary sports a big­ger cast, more loca­tions, and even more accom­plished CG, so it can hard­ly have been cheap­er to make.

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