I did not have high hopes for Diary of the Dead. The idea of re-setting the "Of the Dead" series so we could see the opening days of the zombie plague was, I thought, a profoundly uninteresting idea. The advantage the "Of the Dead" series had was that we got to leap into the story, post-zombie crisis. We don't have to waste time watching a bunch of characters figure out what we already know. We can get right to the good stuff. Besides, we've had quite a few years of zombie flicks re-hashing Zombie Week 1 or what have you. Do we really need yet another movie showing what's essentially the same scenario. The only less interesting than that premise was the "twist": the movie will be a Blair Witch vérité-style thingie, so we can witness the zombie nightmare with value added shaky camera work.
As low as my expectations were, Diary of the Dead actually managed to underwhelm them. Diary of the Dead is definitely the worst flick in the "Of the Dead" series and it might very well be the worst flick of Romero's career.
The plot of Diary is perfectly serviceable if not particularly interesting. A film school crew is making a mummy-centric horror flick of in the woods when they hear news that dead people are coming back to life. They don't fully believe it, but they decide that something's up and they'd better get somewhere more secure than the middle of the woods. The group splits up. The "mummy," a snotty trust fund kid, grabs a dame and zips off to his parents Wayne-manor grade estate. There they plan to wait out the disaster Masque of the Red Death style. The rest of the group decides they need to follow Jason, director of the film within a film and the character that "shoots" most of the film, back to school to make sure his girlfriend is okay.
After securing his dame, the cast hops in an RV and starts making their way across Pennsylvania, presumably to get to their various homes. What follows are episodic zombie scenes that involve, among other things, a mute/deaf Amish farmer, a group of African American separatists who view the zombocaust as their chance to run things, rogue National Guardsmen, and a swimming pool full of living dead folks.
From a production standpoint, the film fails on so many levels. Even by the standards of the series, which has never been super strong in the acting department, the acting is pretty crappy. This isn't helped by the fact that Romero burdens his struggling thespians with atrocious dialogue. For some reason, Romero feels the need to have his characters narrate what we see. After shooting three zombies in a hospital, one of the characters says, "I just shot three people in less than 30 minutes." Characters will point to some dead person and say, "Look, he's dead!" Characters constantly recap the story for other characters. They share deep thoughts like, "It used to be us versus us. But now it's us versus them. But they are us." Indeed.
The plotting is haphazard. I imagine there is a certain temptation in writing a road movie to let things side a bit. You can just write a scene, end it, pile everybody in the RV, have 'em chat a bit while scenery rolls past the window, and then just throw them into the next scene. You don't have to sweat connecting them scenes or anything because we'll assume they spent the time just sitting the RV, waiting for their next adventure. After all, there's always a good reason to stop somewhere: gas, food, lodging, "maybe this guy has a working phone," and so on. The end result is a start/stop pace and a bunch of scenes that seem almost randomly strung together. The flick really only picks up in the final scene, when it gets somewhat surreal and grimly silly. This is a pleasant change from the clumsy drama and shallow efforts at gravitas that dominate the first four-fifths of the flick, but it is too little, too late to save it.
As for the subjective camera work, it’s a failed aesthetic choice because the film never really commits to it. Unlike Blair Witch or Cloverfield, the conceit here is that the footage from the character/filmmaker's camera was edited so as to include film from a second camera, other camera sources (such as security cameras), and resources like video clips grabbed from online sources. To top it off, the camera never misses anything. Furthermore, unlike Blair or Clover, there's no sense that your not getting the whole picture. Every time a zombie pops out, every time somebody offs a zombie in some gory way, and every time some character gets it, the camera's right there, with the action nicely framed in the middle of the shot. Basically, the whole first-person cinema thing is a wasted, unused opportunity.
Really the only thing the conceit of the subjective camera does do is give Mr. Romero a hook from which to hang some political content. And that's definitely not a plus. As the "Of the Dead" franchise has gone on, the plots have been forced to carry more and more of Romero's ideological baggage. The political observations of Night, while sometimes strained, were unobtrusive. The anti-commercial message of Dawn, on the other hand, was front and center. Day's "who are the real monsters" shtick was considerably less powerful than Night's similar theme, mainly because it was so over the top and overt as to be shrill and bothersome. By the time we get to Land, it feels like we're getting a checklist of generic liberal talking points: race, check; wealth is the bad, check; our enemies aren't as bad as our leaders, check. It was tiresome and made for a clunky, preachy flick.
In Diary, Romero takes on the YouTube/Facebook/media culture we now live in. No longer content to bludgeon us with his messages, Diary provides Mr. Romero with a narrator so he can lecture us directly through an in-film mouthpiece. That would be bad enough, but the fact that Mr. Romero doesn't seem to have any coherent thoughts on the subject. In one part of the film, his in-flick puppet praises the bloggers and YouTube posters of the world for being a source of truth when the mainstream media lies. Later, however, this same narrator will moan that, when you have thousands of different voices out there, all putting their spin on something, it make the truth impossible to find. Everything the movie has to say about the media, its effects on us, and its impact on our culture is of that nature. It’s a collection of shallow, contradictory statements that all sound like they were pulled of the jacket copy of a random selection of pop media study books. There's actually an interesting way in which Romero's lack of anything cogent to say about the wired world is reflected in his representation of how tech works. For example, in this film, when digital signals start to fade, you don't drop the signal and get a dead screen. Instead you get static, like an old television set gets when its bunny ears aren't receiving a channel clearly.
I can help but feel this is part of the general exhaustion of the zombie theme. Perhaps zombies aren't really the universal metaphor, ready to help you make whatever point you can shoe horn into a flick. I think it's time Romero put the zombies away. I'd argue that his two most interesting and creative flick, Martin, suggests what he could do if freed from the shackles of the "Of the Dead" franchise. Here's hoping.