I was willing to give George Romero the benefit of the doubt for Land of the Dead, a deeply flawed but watchable film that left the allegorical framework of the director’s seminal zombie canon intact. But with Diary of the Dead, not only do the weaknesses consume the metaphor, they threaten to retroactively derail Romero’s entire franchise. No longer is he the harbinger of independent filmmaking and conscience-driven horror with relevant subtexts, but an out-of-touch old fogy desperately grasping for a topical footing to make statements about a world he knows nothing about.
And like so many filmmakers these days, Romero has attached himself to the technological implications of the Information Age. The ubiquity of communications media, of digital memory and the Internet, would suggest that the filmmaker’s role has fragmented (see Cloverfield, [rec], etc.) into first-person free-for-all. And part of Romero, the indie maverick who thumbed his nose at Hollywood industry 40 years ago, is happy to see the creative process available to anyone who wants it. But he’s no optimist — Diary of the Dead gives us a group of college wannabes whose first impulse when zombies begin munching the populace is not to help but to jam a camera in the action and upload the results. Techno-consumerism and voyeurism have made good bedfellows.
The film tracks a group of University of Pittsburgh film students who, while attempting to make their own low-budget horror movie in the woods, learn of the zombie apocalypse and flee in a Winnebago. Their nominal leader, Jason (Josh Close), figures that the “real” horror around them would make a finer chronicle and begins filming the adventure; the results are said to be later edited together by his girlfriend. The group bumbles from one banal interlude to the next, running into crazy survivalists, zombie-fied family members, and lastly a whacked-out rich enclave. We’ve seen all of this before with better action, more compelling characters, and less of a ham-fisted homily tacked on. If you walk away from Diary of the Dead with “Duh…maybe man is the real monster” reeling through your head, it won’t be because you parsed out the subtext, it’ll be because nearly every character in the film said as much every five fucking minutes.
Diary, like all of Romero’s work, is interesting as social commentary, but that’s really all the good I can say about it. The director’s message is intact, but his means of execution have completely floundered. The exposition is dull and occasionally moronic, and the characters are woodenly acted stereotypes who spout one-liners that would make Vin Diesel cringe. Only a few moments of silly but amusing gore seem to recall Romero at his zaniest. The ethical entanglements of uploading viral vids of a zombie eating someone’s face, only to have said video outwatched by “Chocolate Rain,” were played so baldly that I had to fight to keep both palms from smacking my forehead. I’m afraid this time I have to agree with the naysayers: George Romero has lost control of the genre he himself spawned, and it’s time for him to bow out gracefully, leaving his franchise in the capable hands of those he inspired instead of making another turkey.
Phillip Stephens is the lead critic and book editor for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR, and wastes his twenties in grad school(s).
Diary of the Dead / Phillip Stephens
Film | May 19, 2008 | Comments ()