Diary of the Dead (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Sometimes, it's all a matter of timing, and timing is not in Diary of the Dead's favor. When the movie began making the film festival rounds at the tail end of the summer of 2007, it represented a fresh and invigorating look at an apocalypse - one as seen through the lenses of camcorders in the YouTube era. Unfortunately for George A. Romero, the theatrical debut of Diary of the Dead was trumped by that of Cloverfield, a similar kind of movie (albeit with a giant monster instead of zombies) with the same perspective. Regardless of how good Diary of the Dead is - and it's at least on par with Cloverfield, if not superior - one has to question whether there's enough room for two such related motion pictures in a short span of time. If there's one thing Diary of the Dead has in its favor, it's that the hand-held photography is more stable and less potentially nausea inducing than that of Cloverfield, but there's a sense that one first-person horror/thriller per year is more than enough, and that could end up being Diary of the Dead's undoing.

A veteran best known for the zombie films that have defined him to a generation of fans both casual and rabid, Romero has spent a career chronicling a world in which the dead walk. He has been spoofed, ripped off, and aped by talentless hacks and talented trailblazers. In recent years, however, Romero has been losing steam. His previous venture into the realm of the living dead, Land of the Dead, was tired and derivative. Not so this latest movie, Diary of the Dead. Here, Romero executes a clever re-boot of the series, postulating what might happen if the dead began to rise in an era where everyone has a video camera and the Internet is awash in home video clips. The film is not only a zombie movie but a commentary on how we get our information in an age when traditional media sources are self-censored and ineffective.

Diary of the Dead poses as a fake documentary called The Death of Death - something that has been compiled and edited by a group of university film students who employ video cameras to capture horrifying images of the beginning of the end. Like The Blair Witch Project, the film does nothing to break the reality. The perspective is first-person. We see how things start, how society begins to crumble, and how those filming these things must come face-to-face with personal demons. Diary of the Dead is not without hints of comedy, although much of it is of the gallows variety. Chief among the humorous elements is a kick-ass Amish man who is unfazed by the fact that the corpses are not remaining in their graves.

Of course, since this is Romero, there's plenty of gore but, in this film, it seems more like icing than the cake. The film's faux-doc approach dilutes tension, so there's not much of that. In attempting to do something a little different, Romero has injected an element of sophistication into his approach. That's not to say that Dead-heads won't get a thrill out of the movie, but it isn't just another regurgitation of Night of the Living Dead. This movie has something to say, and the message comes across loudly and clearly. It's a twofold condemnation: of the media for lying about the severity of the outbreak and of the government for dealing with it ineffectively. This is Katrina multiplied by one thousand. While TV follows the party line about it being some kind of disease or hoax, clips posted to the Internet show the truth. There's also a little philosophy here: "God had changed the rules on us and we were playing along."

All-in-all, the intelligence of the approach combined with good old-fashioned zombie blood-and-gore (as opposed to the slicker, sicker torture porn variety) makes this not only the most satisfying motion picture Romero has made in a long while, but one of the best of his career. This is one veteran filmmaker who has met expectations. The only question is whether the long shadow of Cloverfield will eclipse the dawn of these dead.

Diary of the Dead (United States, 2008)

Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 2008-02-15
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1