“Screw the Emmy, I’ll settle for a paycheck.”
Review Date: October 7, 2010
Released by: Dimension Extreme
Release date: 6/20/2008
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 1.78:1 | 16x9: Yes
“Story of my life…”
– Camera man
George A. Romero may have an on-screen cameo in Diary of the Dead
, but this exchange at the start of the film has grey hair and black rimmed glasses all over it. It’s no secret that Romero’s experienced a pretty maligned life as a filmmaker – unable to really find success or funding for all his projects outside of his signature Dead
series. Films like Martin
or The Crazies
may live on now, but in their time they were disappointments, and the one film outside of the Dead
that was successful, Creepshow
, hasn’t entirely aged well. Any chance he took at tackling something different, Season of the Witch, Monkey Shines
, Two Evil Eyes
were all box office flops. It’s understandable, then, that twenty years after Day of the Dead
and a number of failed films since (remember Bruiser
?), Romero returned to his bread and butter for 2005’s Land of the Dead
. Like clockwork, of course, it was Romero’s first film to make money since Day
. But all was not quite well in Romeroverse. Many people cried studio interference, that Romero’s true vision wasn’t on the table, but instead Universal’s. Romero did nothing to dispel such rumors, and fans were happy to learn that his next Dead
film would finally return him to his independent roots.
Diary of the Dead
would be shot in Canada with an unknown cast, digital camcorders and a budget only a fraction of the size of Land of the Dead
. He still got his paycheck, but the hope was that, finally, his unabridged view of the sub-genre he spawned would finally advance the genre once more like it had the three previous films. Hell, maybe he’d even get an award or two. Diary of the Dead
quietly came and went to theaters, earning only $952,620 in a limited engagement (a far cry from the $20,000,000 Land of the Dead
chewed). It was a moderate critical success, but the reaction from horror fans was decidedly more mixed. Negative, even. Is it true that Romero’s finally lost touch with the zeitgeist, or was this found-footage experiment simply too progressive for audiences? Let’s flip the page on Romero’s Diary
to find out.
The film begins first through the camera of a television crew on location at a brutal mass murder. A minority man apparently took a gun to his wife and son before turning it on himself. Standard “if it bleeds, it leads” stuff for the newsdesk. The camera man is setting up his shot when, all of a sudden, the mother starts moving on the gurney. Could it be that she’s still alive? A happy ending after all? Erm, not quite. She sits up and rips out the neck of the EMT and proceeds to shamble forward towards the camera and everyone else in the media. Shortly after her son follows suit. The dead are alive, and it’s happening everywhere. Bloggers, YouTubers, paparazzi and news crews the world over start posting footage of the dead coming back to life. In our age of apathy, many people try to dismiss this as an elaborate hoax, but as more and more videos of all sorts start being uploaded, it’s clear that lies are the least of their worries.
Meanwhile, there’s a camera crew of a bunch of college kids shooting their own little horror film. That’s right, self-reflexivity. Their filming of a mummy come back to life is interrupted when the news of the undead starts to invade their radio. Realizing that reality at this point is far more interesting than the stuff of old Universal Horror (a bitter dig at the production house for Land of the Dead
, perhaps?), the director, Jason Creed (Joshua Close
) turns the camera instead on his friends. How do people react and deal with the apocalypse? The group all gather inside a motor home on their way back to Philly (where else?) but a crashed car and a plodding, undead traffic officer indicate that they probably won’t make it back. At least they probably won’t alive.
On their road to find shelter, the group come face to face with many factions, including a Sergent Rhodes-like military outfit(!), a mute Amish grandpa(!!), and a band of black looters(!!!). As they witness themselves and their loved ones inflicted with the undead, they start to fray at the seams as they start to explore their own humanity. The cameras roll on, with the ultimate intent for the living to have something to document and to learn from going forward. This is Jason Creed’s “The Death of Death” for anyone still out there…
Judging by the box office and fan reception, not a lot of the Romero faithful remain, but there is still a lot of Diary of the Dead
that’s worth enjoying. After the safe and obvious Land of the Dead
, Romero really does try to take the film in more topical, sociocultural directions. The handheld footage device has seemed arbitrary and old hat since The Blair Witch Project
, but here Romero creatively factors the forced dedication to getting a good shot even in the face of death, into the motivations of his characters. Much of the movie is a commentary on the media and how our interconnected mediums have turned us into compulsive documentarians of our existence. People in Diary of the Dead
don’t just capture or upload footage to enlighten the public – they do it as a coping strategy. It’s a way to take power, to be the director, in a world where there is no control. A particularly ironic moment happens later in the film when the director boasts that his clip has already received thousands of hits in a matter of minutes. Even when it’s clear that there isn’t even a society left to uphold it, fame is still something that drives us. The cameras in this film give the characters a false sense of control, and an even falser hope that somehow they’ll receive validation for their work. Even in the face of death, Romero shows that deep down we just want to be accepted.
Romero does a master’s job of using different “natural” filming techniques and sources to tell his story, from the standard handheld camera to using surveillance footage, news clips and even white noise to help give his film a mosaic quality. Many of the best moments come because of the parts we did not see. When the battery dies during a zombie attack, or when the cameraman is forced to stay in a room while shrieks are heard elsewhere because he’s plugged in and charging. Although certainly not a master of subtlety, Romero still does show some at a key moment when his typical, brutish soldier archetype tells the camera man to shut off the camera, sparing us the inevitable scene of a man of authority showing just how far the power has been abused. Instead we just cut to the next time the camera is turned on as the soldiers drive off and fire their guns maniacally. That’s all we need to see, and Romero has an economy of composition and editing, telling his story in as simple and sparse a manner as possible, and that low budget approach gives the film a real immediacy that the over-produced Land of the Dead
There’s no music to bolster the carnage – Romero thankfully lets his footage speak for itself. Aside from an early nod to his famous Dawn of the Dead
commentary on consumerism, where a female zombie is seen pushing a shopping cart, Romero even avoids giving his zombies irony, instead returning them to the cold, obvious, inhumanity that defined them in Night of the Living Dead
. Romero has a character explain (and seemingly refute the popularity of 28 Days Later
or the Dawn of the Dead
remake) why zombies cannot run, and from that point forward treats them with a scientific objectivity. The metaphors are left for the cameras this time, his zombies just “are” and in that manner it brings the film back to the point where death can actually be scary again. When one of the filmmakers is forced to shoot her revived boyfriend in the face, there’s a harrowing tragedy apparent, because that’s it, there’s nothing more to it. As a transformational film to shed the ironic weight that had been building since Dawn of the Dead
and return the film to sparseness, Diary of the Dead
is a form of triumph for Romero, and by most accounts a rewarding one for audiences.
By no means is this Diary perfect, though. There are many missteps, be them from Romero’s unavoidably heavy hand or his simple run off of ideas in the final third of the film. The bit with the black, Katrina-like looters is really on the nose, and borderline offensive when they defend their position by saying this apocalypse finally gives their race a chance to be in control. Really, George? In his previous Dead
films, Romero always did an admirable, progressive, job of presenting African Americans as strong characters that aren’t defined by their blackness. They were defined by their character. Here he deals too much in stereotypes, whether it’s the looters or that awkward stab at comedy in an otherwise somber film with the Amish man.
After introducing so many interesting ideas during the first two acts of the film, Romero seems to run out of places to go by the third, giving us the same old sites, the same old moral dilemmas and in some cases the same old scenes. The ending is most disappointing, since rather than growing on the mythology he’s introduced in this fifth Dead film, he instead falls back on another obvious stereotype he closed with in his first film. Surely, after forty years Romero has more to say than just “look at inhumanity!” It’s clear he does, because the rest of his film is so pointed. Why he choice to end on such a brazen cliché then, is curious.
Still, even with its missteps, Diary of the Dead
is a bold and exciting new entry in the Dead
canon. Our decade-long remake culture has rendered the horror film limp at offering any sort of cultural critique or social insight, and thankfully Romero has delivered on the credo he’s upheld his entire career, at always trying to explore above the obvious in his movies. There are a lot of ideas in Diary of the Dead
. Some bad, some lazy, but more often than not they are good ones. Inspiring ones, even. Romero has shown here that there’s one thing that can live on longer than even the undead, and that’s the cinema. “Film is forever”, as it goes, and it’s a fate his characters strive for in the movie, and you can tell that Romero, too, is still that young guy from the sixties behind the camera with a dream of changing the world. He certainly hasn’t done so to the degree he did for audiences back then, but to this reviewer he’s still changing it for those willing to listen.
It’s tough to really critique the picture quality of Diary of the Dead
, because the whole film is made to be a handheld, student-shot patchwork. All the trademarks of the video look are present – muddy, desaturated colors, shaky camera movements, edge softness and a long depth of field. The aesthetic definitely works, but the film could still have benefitted from a more flattering or aggressive color correction. Romero talks about how the DOP had trouble mixing colors and light temperatures throughout the film, and it’s pretty evident here when skin tones go from green to orange to blue, sometimes in the same shot. The transfer is progressive scan, and the Panasonic cameras used for the production certainly output a good enough video considering their mobility. The look works, it just doesn’t look all that flattering.
Diary of the Dead
is presented in English Dolby Digital 5.1 and sounds respectable. It’s not an overly active track, but it doesn’t have to be given the found footage angle of the film. Still, gun shots and action still do exhibit some moderate low end presence. Directionality is used sparingly, but at times provides modest surround. Good enough.
We’re used to extras when it comes to Romero’s Dead movies, but this new DVD covers some fresh ground. First, the standard stuff. Romero is joined by DOP Adam Swica and Editor Michael Doherty for a group commentary, and given it’s a current film, they have a lot to say. It’s almost odd hearing a commentary by one of the masters for a current film, since we’ve all been so used to “uhhs” and “ahhhs” as directors try and recall their old classics. Georgy is still chugging along, though, and his commentary here is a lively one, spending a lot of time discussing his intent while the DOP and editor talk about the kind of concessions or challenges they had to overcome to achieve it. Romero, in his engaging liberal fashion, isn’t afraid to go off on tangents about anything from gore in the cinema to politics. It’s a solid track…nice to see the old dog is still sharp as a tack.
Another sizeable extra we’ve come to expect with Romero is a feature-length documentary, and “For the Record” from Michael Felsher fits the bill. Although it curiously cannot be played in full, it’s split into five segments adding up to over eighty minutes. The first looks at Romero and his intentions for the project, the second at the cast and how they feel about working on a Romero picture, the third the make-up artists and how they feel about working on a Romero picture, the fourth the visual effects artists and how they feel about working on a Romero picture and finally the DOP and production designer talk about the art style and how they feel about working on a Romero picture. If it’s not clear, everyone in the documentary is pretty smitten with Romero and the prospect of growing his legacy of zombie movies, and while repetitive it is nice to see the love. Overall it does a decent job of showcasing the production, the crew and the significant scenes or effects, but overall it’s a little on the puffier side, something not usually the case from Red Shirt Pictures.
With those out of the way, it’s time for some fun and enlightening extras. The first is “The First Week”, hosted by Michael Felsher in a fun and giddy look at the first seven days of production. Bad weather, long nights and shaky cameras, it’s all here in a cute four-minute fly on the wall look at how the film came together its first week. “The Roots” is a quick 2-minute promo with Romero discussing why he came back to make a fifth Dead movie. Okay, he doesn’t say “the money”, but otherwise it sounds pretty honest.
Another five minutes is devoted to “Familiar Voices”, which features the unedited telephone recordings of Guillermo del Toro, Simon Pegg and Stephen King that are used in the film. We hear multiple takes from each, and it’s interesting to hear the different inflections and then Romero’s reactions on the other end. It’s audio only to a bed of blurry stock video.
The best extra is “Character Confessionals”, a twenty-odd minute reel of various actors in character speaking directly to the camera as the events in the film progress. Four actors in total visually chronicle themselves, and honestly, this is the kind of extra I’d like to see more of. Harmless for those who don’t want to see it, but for those as engaged in the narrative as I was, it’s a fascinating use of alternate media to expand the narrative outside of the story. Each character gets a great chance to explore some dark drama, and each one does quite well. Some moving, effective stuff.
Rounding off the extras are five winners from a short film contest held on MySpace to promote the film. While it’s a good idea in theory, the quality of the submissions was definitely lacking. None, other than a few bursts from the grand prize winner, are really entertaining at all. The zombie shorts range from two to four minutes.
After the complacent mediocrity of Land of the Dead
, Romero turns a fresh new page in his zombie saga with Diary of the Dead
. It’s a dark and somber movie, able to once again make zombies scary after years of humanizing and jovial satire. The film posits a strong, topical and effective political message, something that’s eluded the often on-the-nose Romero. It isn’t flawless, but a ballsy flick with an experimental style that finally gives the handicam look purpose. That handicam look doesn’t translate into the best visual quality for this DVD, and nor is the surround track anything to moan about. The extras are a nice mix, with the character confessionals engagingly expanding on the narrative of the feature. We may have made it so the only movies Romero can ever made now are zombie movies, but as long as he does them with the freshness and insight as Diary
then that can only be a good thing.
Movie - A-
Image Quality - B-
Sound - B
Supplements - A-
- Running time - 1 hour 36 minutes
- Not Rated
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English Dolby Digital 5.1
- English SDH subtitles
- Spanish subtitles
- Commentary with George A. Romero and crew
- "For the Record" feature-length documentary
- "The Roots" featurette
- "The First Week" featurette
- "Familiar Voices" cameo outtakes
- "Character Confessionals" extra footage
- MySpace short film contest winners