Diary of the Dead
Review by Mike Finkelstein
After George Romero's previous zombie effort, Land of the Dead, came out I was largely done with his series. He'd directed three masterpieces of the zombie genre -- Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead (and produced a version of Night of the Living Dead I happened to like even better than the original) and managed to define all of zombie horror for half a century. But after twenty years of waiting for his next "Twilight of the Dead", the actual film was an utter disappointment. I had the classics, I didn't need anything further from him on the matter.
I'd be willing to get others of the Romero faithful were in a similar boat. We wanted the nest stirring zombie epic but got a relative dud. How much should we then care if, two years, later, Romero already has another film in his zombie series. He used to spend a decade carefully crafting his ghoulish statements. Clearly, now, he was just pushing out sub-par work for the money. Why bother, right? Well, unfortunately by dismissing all his work after the (worthy of being dismissed) Land of the Dead we actually missed out on a pretty solid, little zombie film from the master of the form.
I won't try to make the argument that Diary of the Dead is up to Romero's original trilogy of zombie films. It's essentially a found-footage zombie film (coming out after found footage had already become an overused fad), a document of a group of college students -- narrator Debra Moynihan (Michelle Morgan), aspiring film director Jason Creed (Joshua Close), and and their film crew of Tony Ravello (Shawn Roberts), Tracy Thurman (Amy Lalonde), Eliot Stone (Joe Dinicol), Andrew Maxwell (Scott Wentworth), Ridley Wilmott (Philip Riccio), and Mary Dexte (Tatiana Maslany) -- as they witness the first days of the zombie outbreak and document the world steadily falling apart. There really isn't anything new here, either in Romero's own work or for the found footage genre, but it is a credit that the director is able to at least make a decent film in both genres at the same time.
The first trick the film pulls is setting this up as a student film and not just as random found footage cobbled together by some outside presence, aired for us to view without context. By making the film crew characters in the movie, having them be a part of the action, talking about their film and the work they're doing (whether right or wrong), the film becomes the story, the connective thread that holds it all together. It helps to recontextualize the found footage style, giving it a reality and substance a lot of films in that subgrene of horror lack.
By setting the film in the first days of the outbreak we also get a new perspective in the familiar story. This film is forty years removed from the original Night of the Living Dead, and the outbreak depicted in that first film isn't exactly the same as the one we'd see now (since Romero always updates the world for the decade he's working in). Not only do the kids of camcorders and camera phones, footage they can download from Online and tweeted vods, but the perspective they have on the world is different. They can go traveling across country to try and find their family, attempting to call them while on the road and searching the Internet for news. The basics of the outbreak might be the same -- zombies come back from the dead for no understood reason -- but the perspective of it is different now owing to the further forty years that we've traveled as an audience.
Romero has some new things to say, making pointed stabs at the U.S government, the economics of a world gone mad, and the lengths those in power will do to downplay a potential outbreak. I'd say the scenario in question was a little far fetched, that a government such as the one the U.S. has, would be able to handle a zombie outbreak effectively in this day and age... except we now live in the world of COVID-19 and we've seen how far a leader will go to downplay a virus and act like everything is okay. The reality depicted in this movie feels a little too real, like Romero had an inkling the rest of us are only just catching onto now.
All of that said, not everything about the movie really works. One of the biggest flaws is that its core cast of characters -- obviously chosen from people who hadn't had their big break yet so they wouldn't stand out as "stars" -- aren't quite as convincing as they needed to be. Most of their performances are okay at best, decent but not great. The two leads -- Morgan and Close -- those are flat and unconvincing. Debra is supposed to be going through a lot, possibly having lost her family and traveling home to find out while also slowly breaking up with her boyfriend as he films everything -- but her performance is too wooden, too uninvested to really sell all the emotions, and her emotional growth, inherent to the character.
Close is certainly worse, though, because his character seems to above-it-all, constantly filming everything. He's not on screen very often, mostly being a voice behind the camera, so he couldn't have been an easy part to play, I'm sure. Still, from what I could detect in the script, the goal was to show that Josh was filming everything because he was in shock at seeing the world falling apart. This is his coping mechanism, in effect. I got that from the text of their words but I never read that off his performance; if Close could have conveyed the emotions Jason was feeling, letting us in gist a little into his emotional dissonance, it could have made for a vastly more compelling character.
And, as with Land of the Dead, this film uses a lot of CGI to cover for a lack of makeup effects and budget. I get that CGI is cheaper and easier to work with now, but there was something visceral about all the tear, rending, and disembowlings in the classic films. There's hardly a good, gory death in this film, with CGI covering all the carnage we do see, and most of the attacks happening from a bad angle or far away. This film is too removed from its own action to really sell it, to limited by its budgets to give us the true, visceral scares we really need.
So no, I don't think Diary of the Dead is as good as Romero's initial output. But that doesn't make it a bad movie, just a middling one from a one-great director. I'm glad to see his work improved after the abysmal Land of the Dead. I just wish he could have had the budget of that film to make a movie of this caliber. That would have been something special indeed.