This is not an opinion you’re likely to find anywhere else on the internet, but we are prepared to argue that Diary of the Dead is one of the best of the entire George A. Romero zombie cycle. 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.
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.”
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. 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.
You’ve been reading an entry in the our George A. Romero Zombie Cycle Film Festival. Join us in revisiting all five canonical episodes in the original epic zombie saga: