News reporters film a story about the death of an immigrant family and their child, but as they are wheeled out of their apartment, the mother and child return to life and attack the emergency crew. Elsewhere, Jason Creed and a group of friends, mostly students, are filming a Mummy film in the woods when they hear about lots of deaths on the news and even maybe the dead walking. As they pick up the girlfriend of one of the group and go on the road, Jason decides to document what is happening because his record could become an important part of history, even if members of his group are starting to be killed off…………..
It seems to be generally acknowledged that George Romero’s Dead series went gradually downhill after Dawn Of The Dead, but that movie was so great that Day Of The Dead was still a fine film and Land Of The Dead was still enjoyable. With Diary Of The Dead though, it seems that the great man was really starting to lose it. It’s a seriously flawed film which does have some strong moments, but can’t overcome its basic idiocy. Initially, Romero intended to make a direct follow-up to Land Of The Dead, but after its commercial disappointment and obvious studio interference, he decided to make the next instalment independently, with little money, and a shoot that lasted only 23 days! Sounds like a recipe for success doesn’t it, especially when he took ideas from a zombie TV series he had planned in the late 90s?
My heart sank a little when I heard it was being shot in the manner of Rec and The Blair Witch Project, so that what we see is supposedly being filmed by one of the characters; surely Romero didn’t need to go down this route? I do think that the Romero of Night, Dawn and Day Of The Dead would have pulled this off. The Romero of 2007 though obviously couldn’t, and my suspicions were confirmed. I suppose that if Diary Of The Dead had been made by some fresh, young, upcoming filmmaker we may all have been quite impressed. From Romero though, it’s a great deal more of a disappointment then the flawed but still solid Land Of The Dead, even if you accept that, because it’s set in 2007, it’s not really another sequel but exists in a whole new universe to the other films.
Diary Of The Dead opens well with the news reporters filming the attack on the ambulance crew. There’s a real immediacy and realism to this sequence, and I remember thinking at the cinema, “wow, maybe he’s really pulled it off”! However, once we switch to Jason’s ‘film’, far too many stupid things immediately become apparent. A female narrator explains how the ‘film’ has been edited to make it look professional and things like music added, but moments where the camera goes off to black are left in. We are constantly reminded that this ‘film’ is being made to tell the world about the zombie epidemic and we see a few things crop up on the internet from other sources showing the truth, but surely most people would have found out about what’s happening pretty quickly if it’s so widespread and indeed worldwide? Jason is so obsessed with filming everything that he doesn’t even bother to help his friends much when they are being attacked. I couldn’t buy that this guy was that horrible.
It seems that Romero somewhat botched his premise with this film His social commentary is really upfront in this movie, with Romero having much to say about a variety of issues, from media control and manipulation, to its increased lack of power due to things like the internet, to the obsession we have with filming everything for all the world to see. However, here it seems as if the script was dashed off to support the social commentary, rather than the other way round, to the point that Romero lost focus. Diary Of The Dead does succeed in being moderately exciting for the first two thirds, and does partially benefit from having less zombies. The set pieces do often work with a sequence in a hospital being especially tense and there’s still plenty of gore. Some gags are repeated [such as the body-sitting-up-and-dropping-his-intestines-over-the-floor from Day Of The Dead], but many are new [an EMP machine death where the eyes explode, a hanging zombie being shot so only his head remains attached to the rope], and although overall it’s the least gruesome of the series after Night Of The Living Dead, the killings do often benefit from sometimes being only briefly seen [though the CG is extremely obvious sometimes!].
Towards the end the film almost crawls to a halt, then ends before you know it. No hair-raising climax, just a blackly comic gag and the narrator questioning if we are worth saving at all. This is in keeping with the generally nihilistic view of humanity these films have, but in terms of being an actual movie I don’t think Romero knew how to end it, or just gave up. The characters, with the odd exception, aren’t as sharply delineated as usual. This means that they all come across as being pretty dumb young people who you don’t really care about when they are becoming zombie food, though I did like the Amish guy who is a dab hand at dispatching zombies and the group of black people who are happy that, for once, because of the chaos, they have the power. The acting is mostly pretty poor except by Andrew Maxwell as Scott Wentworth, as the student’s heavy drinking professor, though with some of the dialogue they were given its’ not surprising. Listen out though for Wes Craven, Guillermo Del Toro, Quentin Tarantino, Simon Pegg and Stephen King as newsreaders, and apparently Tom Savini’s voice crops up somewhere too.
The cinematography by Adam Swica is wildly erratic but sometimes quite good, yet too good for the basic concept. I really think that, with Diary Of The Dead, Romero had some good ideas, but in his hurry to make the film quickly and in an ‘independent’ fashion, didn’t give himself enough time to think most of them through. There are still traces of a good filmmaker in there somewhere, some scenes do work, and it is reasonably entertaining for some of its length if you try to ignore the problems which dominate, which I find very hard to do. At the very least, you can say that this movie is an absolute classic compared with the one that followed…….