Lest there somehow remain any shred of doubt as to how little faith George A. Romero has in humanity, the grim coda to his curious foray into subjective filmmaking should dispatch that uncertainty with the stopping power of a carefully aimed bullet fired into a shambling zombie's forehead. Not since Night of the Living Dead has a Romero coda felt so deliciously grim, and while fans will certainly argue the merits of his fifth "Dead" film -- as well, perhaps, as the aging filmmaker's continued relevance or lack thereof -- there's still plenty to like about Diary of the Dead.
While some may be quick to compare Diary of the Dead to such subjective-style hits as Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project, it should be noted that this is a very different beast. Whereas both of those films were purported to be raw found or recovered footage, Diary of the Dead wastes no time explaining that the film-within-a-film that we are about to see -- a student film entitled "The Death of Death" -- is in fact a "professionally" produced document of events as experienced by a group of young filmmakers who happened to be shooting a low-budget horror film when the dead decided to get up and go searching for some guts to munch. As such, the "filmmaker" has seen fit to drop in the occasional musical cue, get a bit creative with editing, and occasionally draw on footage shot by others in order to drive home their point. It's a curious experiment that largely works thanks to Romero's signature gallows humor, social commentary, and creative zombie kills, though some longtime fans may decry the perceived lack of character definition that distinguishes the director's most effective works. Still, seeing as how the main character -- the one through whom the audience experiences the majority of the story -- goes largely unseen for most of the running time, it could be argued that Romero was simply going for concept rather than character this time around. Romero has always been concerned with how we receive and respond to media, and in this film that preoccupation is arguably more pronounced than ever before. From a mention of the original "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast early on, we're clearly tuned in to Romero's feelings about the power of the media, and in an era when everyone with Internet access is essentially "the media," he seems to be arguing that we shouldn't take that distinction in stride.
Two films past the "Dead Trilogy" and counting (Romero has openly stated in interviews that he is interested in making his first-ever direct sequel to Diary), perhaps it's time to lay the concept of this being a trilogy to rest in order to reassess and reevaluate the "Dead" films as a series. At this point, we all know that Romero is a filmmaker who likes to inject his horror with a little social commentary -- it's what distinguishes his movies from the glut of brainless, generic zombie flicks that line the shelves of your local video store. Yet, to constantly compare his latest endeavors to the films we now consider "classics" (Night, Dawn, and Day), we do both the movies and the man behind them a grave injustice -- even Day was maligned by fans and critics when it first hit screens back in 1985, only to be deemed a grim classic by legions of fans upon reappraisal. Romero isn't the same filmmaker he was when he created that original trilogy -- nor, for that matter, when he made Land of the Dead -- and while it may be hard to accept the fact that we might never get another film with the power and iconography of Dawn of the Dead, we should be careful not to dismiss his more recent endeavors simply due to some perceived lack of bite. Perhaps his commentary works better when applied to some concepts (and eras) than others, but given the choice between watching a lesser work by a filmmaker with something truly interesting to say, or a polished slice of entertainment from a former music-video director who built their career on pushing a product, why continually opt to switch off our brains? Are we still capable of thinking and being entertained at the same time, or has the short-attention-span theater of modern media made us completely incapable of completing such advanced processes? If you answered in the positive, chances are you'll be able to look past the surface flaws and find something to like about Diary of the Dead. If you answered in the negative, perhaps Romero's bleak commentary concerning humankind's true value isn't too far off.
George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead on AllMovie
George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead (2007)