Some filmmakers do their best work when they don’t have much money and their back is against the wall. Diary of the Dead was produced independently, completely devoid of studio pressures, and thus made in the more informal, low-budget way of George A. Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead. (Did the director breathe a sigh of relief, knowing he didn’t have to please anyone but himself?) The 1960s idealism of Land of the Dead felt out of touch, though it wasn’t like Romero’s notions were wrong: Our culture has become apathetic and disenfranchised, with no radical heroes to look up to and no political activists demanding we break down the walls, but the problem with that film was that Romero had covered its ground already. For all that project’s state-of-the-art special effects and vivid apocalyptic imagery, his arguments against the leeching Powers That Be hadn’t evolved into a new context for our generation.
The personal, low-budget cinema of Romero’s era was made on the 16mm film cameras used in Night of the Living Dead, where the grainy black-and-white film stock looked like something being played on your local news station. And Romero was part of a movement that took to the streets with their portable gear and used movies as a way of relaying the shock and rage of their time. The year of that picture’s release was a major one, with state troopers opening fire on university students, expansion of the draft during a time when thousands were being killed in Vietnam every month, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and riots in the streets of American cities. The formats have changed for those seeking out a means of angry self-expression in our modern time: Video and the Internet are the places to go, and Romero has reconnected with that sense of urgency and timeliness that highlight his superior zombie films. Dawn of the Dead was about consumer culture in the 1970s, Day of the Dead was about the greedy, militaristic era of Reagan, and now Diary brings us up to the chilling Now.
That twinge of doubt you may feel at the start of Diary shouldn’t be ignored. Our fast-moving, Internet-savvy, over-stimulated but uninformed generation of bloggers and YouTube junkies has spawned a new genre of movies of dubious quality. A recent offender, the sleek Cloverfield, blatantly exploited 9/11 imagery within the context of a Godzilla-style monster attack on New York City captured on home video, but its limited point of view spouts only smirking hipster nihilism, and Brian De Palma’s Redacted, a satirical “found footage” collage of morally confoundedness, was both confrontational and solipsistic in its depiction of American soldiers in Iraq. Any review of Diary has to give at least passing mention to these other films because they comprise this aforementioned new genre: First Person Cinema.
The drama in each of these films unfolds right in front of characters hiding behind hand-held digital video cameras. These voyeurs acknowledge the horrors unfolding before them, and remark how this shock is easier to deal with when viewed through a screen. They justify their nonstop taping by saying it’s a public record, insisting that people need to watch this! The non-heroes of Cloverfield (and its forerunner, The Blair Witch Project), were entirely lacking in empathy, mainly because their motivations were so transparently selfish. I wonder if the impetus behind these movies is the same that drives the American Dream, which is the desire for acknowledgement and adoration forever for your achievements—in short, fame. What Romero taps into in his movie is that perverse addiction, where the videographers start plugging into this idea that by documenting events they’ll somehow transcend ordinariness.
Not really a sequel to his previous zombie movies, Diary is more of a parallel story taking place at the start of the zombie outbreak. Within the opening minutes (in one long, unbroken shot from the point of a view of a news cameraman, covering the story of a bloody shooting in an urban apartment, who winds up documenting unyielding zombie carnage), Romero sets up his standard rules that the dead are returning to life to eat the living and how they can only be put down by a shot to the head. This video clip is uploaded to the Web because the media is attempting to cover up the truth by reediting the cameraman’s image to make it appear that everything is under control. Periodically throughout Diary, Romero cuts away to new characters or mock news footage showing the government lack of response while the streets turn into a living hell. Sound familiar? In much the same way Night of the Living Dead was a reflection of the 1960s, with its heroes being shot down like sacrificial lambs, Diary taps into our current zeitgeist of misinformation during citywide catastrophes.
The main survivors we follow in Diary are mostly twentysomething film students working on an ultra-low budget mummy movie, a film-within-a-film called The Death of Death. That project gets immediately scrapped when they realize they should hit the road in their Winnebago to see if their parents and loved ones are all right, and that’s when the main First Person Narrator, Jason (Josh Close), realizes he should start documenting for posterity, sticking his camera in everyone’s face and trying to elicit spontaneous responses. Diary is a road movie that leads them from one locale to another, and thus one crisis to another, with these kids grappling with their value systems along the way. Romero has always been a sucker for dialogue where characters state their Big Ideas (“We’re them, and they’re us” is a favorite when humans reflect on the meaning of the flesh eating zombies, and he recycles it here), but considering the self-conscious, self-reflexive nature of confessing or performing for a home movie, their chatter seems genuine. Reality television has replaced the sitcom as a way to dictate to people how they should behave, and the young people of Diary seem like they’re dutifully following those examples.
During Slant Magazine’s recent trip to New Orleans, editor Ed Gonzalez took numerous photographs. When I went off on my own adventures, I didn’t have a camera, and Ed reminded me that nowadays our culture reminds us that if you don’t have a picture of something, it doesn’t exist. With America plunged into a collective attention deficit disorder, where we can barely recall what happened in yesterday’s news, we no longer depend on our memories or imagination. Jason’s girlfriend, Debra (Michelle Morgan), remarks on this during Diary’s grisly road trip (and in case you didn’t hear it the first time, she says it twice), and as always in Romero’s films, the human interactions seem more frightening than the monsters.
Although Debra and some of the other stoic survivors are actually believable and likeable protagonists, with a value system that is more expansive than just looking out for their own selves (they immediately want to get out of the inner-city zombie fray and go to their rural suburban homes outside of Pittsburgh to be with their mothers, fathers and siblings), they cannot help but get caught up in the addiction of narcissistic self-documentation. Romero’s criticism of this seems especially genuine when you see the one older character accompanying them, a college professor and Korean War veteran, and perhaps the most decent and capable in the group, who feels so unable to connect with these new values that he boozes himself into oblivion.
It’s remarkable how nail-bitingly terrifying much of the film is. Keeping the viewer locked into an unwaveringly singular point of view (even when the characters break out multiple cameras, or begin intercutting their footage with found surveillance video, we’re still only seeing what the characters see), Romero allows tension to build whenever the characters land at a new gas station, abandoned house, or woodland pasture. The front-line imagery forces audience identification, so when monsters trudge toward us in the distance or pop up around the corner, the shock feels personal and direct. That’s Romero the craftsman, but that he follows his grisly set pieces with characters rationalizing murder, plenty of room is allowed for Romero the philosopher to express his genuine belief that if we’re to survive, we need to wake up and start using the mediums at our fingertips as a means of expression, or to make a stand. But as for whether he feels like we have any hope at achieving wisdom in a society as stupid and violent as ours has historically proven itself to be, his final Diary image seems to nail that proverbial coffin shut.
From the incandescent glow of the news footage that opens the film to the grainier textures of the video transmitted across the story’s Internet hubs, the image does right by George A. Romero’s aesthetic choices. As for the audio: It sounds like a million dollars, which may not make sense given the context in which the film is presented, but the film’s scares and ideas fly so fast you won’t care.
Appropriately meaty: more than 20 minutes’ worth of character confessionals cut from the film; a four-minute peek at the film’s first-week production by Michael Felsher, who aptly likens Diary of the Dead to a "reboot" of the original film; a two-minute rundown from Romero about the roots of the project; audio outtakes from Guillermo del Toro, Simon Pegg and Stephen King; five MySpace-approved zombie-themed shorts; an exhaustive, five-part making-of featurette; and a commentary by Romero, director of photography Adam Swica and editor Michael Doherty that covers all the bells and whistles and doesn’t feel like a rerun of the disc’s other extras.
Romero gives his original masterpiece a modern-day reboot and scores a comeback after the dismal Land of the Dead.