Diary of the Dead
Written & Directed by George A. Romero
Following the initial outbreak of a zombie epidemic, a group of film students and their drunkenly distinguished instructor from the University of Pittsburgh jump all aboard a mammoth RV and hit the road, looking to escape the ever-growing hoards of the undead and hoping to reconnect with their family members that may still be among the living. Along the way, they meet up with other scattered groups of survivors (including a deaf-mute old Amish man who proves quite adept at re-killings), and of course a good number of hungry flesh munchers. Being film students, they seem completely unable to put their cameras down, so we see it all unfold POV style in Mockumentary format, the first cousin of the found-footage genre that is so heavily discussed these days.
George Romero is the mastermind of the entire zombie genre as we know it today. Before he burst onto the scene, zombies were of the old school variety, drugged and brainwashed victims of black magic forced to perform menial tasks for their slave master, as showcased in the classic Bela Lugosi vehicle White Zombie. But with the release of Night of the Living Dead, the zombie became a whole new creature, a shambling corpse returned from the grave with only the most rudimentary of life functions, acting on one natural instinct alone: the need to feed, and their manna was human flesh.
If Night of the Living Dead was an ambitious horror film with subtle nuances of race relations, Dawn of the Dead was symbolic social satire on American consumer culture, Day of the Dead was a scathing critique of the industrial-military complex, and Land of the Dead was an, albeit flawed, parody of class warfare (the Haves versus the Have-Nots), then it's easy to go into Diary of the Dead looking for some deeper context rippling beneath the bloody surface. But this movie just doesn't run all that deep.
Perhaps it's because the four films mentioned above all comprised parts of an unofficial series--although none of the characters carried over from one film to the next, they followed a natural and believable chronology that allowed them to be viewed as segments in an historical timeline of some alternate reality. But this movie takes place at the beginning of a zombie outbreak, one that is obviously not the same as the one from Night of the Living Dead (proven by the abundance of and reliance on modern day technology if nothing else), so it is at best the beginning of a new, modern franchise, or at worst the reboot of an old one.
Truth be told, there is a modicum of subtext here, simultaneously about modern paranoia in a post 9/11 world, and the world's reliance on media outlets that are not all together reliable or honest--but both of these matters are nominal at best and serve more as set dressing than real social commentary.
By no means is this a bad movie, but it's such a shift in tone from Romero's previous zombie epics that it's almost unsettling. Romero had always been a bit of a sardonic outsider in the movie-making world, and here it seems almost as if he, well...sold out. Gone is the ugly, gritty realism that we love, replaced by a beautiful cast of CW coulda-beens, too-glossy and too-trendy for its own good. He does score a few points for slipping in some sly and gentle jabs at the imitators who have bastardized his rules ("You're dead! You don't run! You shamble!"), but that's far from enough to turn this movie into the masterpiece the world was hoping for. If all you're looking for is a little guilty entertainment and gore, then you will admittedly find that here--but if you're looking for something that feels like Vintage Romero, then you're going to have to rewatch some Vintage Romero. This is Romero 2.0, Romero-Lite. This is a Hollywood remake of a George Romero film that George Romero never made.
And they got George Romero to direct it!
"If it didn't happen on camera, it's like it didn't happen."