George A. Romero’s Dead franchise, always chock-full of social commentary and oodles of blood & guts, gets an injection of modern flavor with its most recent entry, Diary of the Dead. While many critics have condemned it as poorly written, or more of the same from a tired filmmaker, I found it to be an inspired work, rich with clever satire and sly satiric references to our current political landscape. Shot in the same home movie-esque manner as Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project, Diary of the Dead chronicles three dark October days in the Northeast, where a group of film students—ironically shooting their own horror picture—discover that the dead have begun coming back to life. As the bloody reincarnations spread and the carnage grows, the students find themselves scrambling to save themselves while using every resource they can find to warn the world of the life-changing happenings around them.
Romero has always used zombies as a metaphor for his themes, such as examining how humanity reacts to crises—witness the chaos in the mall in Dawn of the Dead, for instance, or the stir-crazy militants in Day of the Dead. With Diary of the Dead, he deftly touches on positives and negatives of modern technology. Jason, the protagonist, and primary man behind the camera, is able to both warn the world (“92,000 hits in an hour!,” he exclaims after posting gruesome footage on his MySpace page), and learn, much to his horror, that this outbreak has already spread as far as Japan, as a petrified girl on YouTube frantically alerts him. Obviously, the internet has proved its usefulness…yet Jason is so obsessed with recording history that everything else about the moment itself—his girlfriend Deb, his friends, his family—become secondary, if not entirely irrelevant. On multiple occasions, he’s chastised for refusing to put the camera down, much like Hud in Cloverfield. His intimacy with those he cares for appears lost in his laptop. It’s a shrewd take on the addictive nature of today’s souped-up gidgets and gadgets, and how they can distract us from the more intimate emotions that truly define us. Romero also makes sure that his roots, based in core human principles that don’t change with the times, aren’t forgotten: the early looting in the dorms—as well as the rowdy Army men pillaging the crew’s bus—remind us of the vigilante kamikaze’s in the mall near Dawn of the Dead‘s conclusion, and is especially chilling in today’s social environment, which doesn’t inspire much confidence in our abilities to handle a cataclysmic event (see: my Cloverfield review).
At 93 minutes, Diary of the Dead makes sure not to overstay its welcome, and keeps a tense vibe of uneasiness and discomfort throughout. In another nod to America’s current obsessions, there’s a strong resemblance to many survival horror video games here. This is especially prevalent in the abandoned hospital (Silent Hill), and Ridley’s palatial home, complete with panic room and endless corridors (Resident Evil). There’s some occasional redundancy Deb and Jason’s exchanges about priorities, but otherwise, the script is more than sufficient in carrying out Romero’s thematics. The movie isn’t scary in the traditional sense, but Romero has never been about that anyway; his works are about something much bigger, with zombie resurrections as more of a backdrop. In my eyes, he’s yet to take a false step in expanding the franchise, and Diary of the Dead is even stronger than the solid Land of the Dead from a few years back.