Diary Of The Dead (2007,USA)
Director: George A. Romero Starring: Michelle Morgan, Joshua Close, Shawn Roberts, Scott Wentworth
In 1968, when George Romero made his low budget horror-come-social satire Night Of The Living Dead it is unlikely he ever imagined it would be the first in a series of six films in a franchise spanning five decades and spawning endless rip offs, homages and remakes. While he wasn’t the first person to make movies about zombies (a particular favourite of mine is Hammer’s 1966 Plague Of The Zombies) he is certainly considered (and rightly so) to be the father of the modern zombie film and the master of the genre. The ’68 Night Of The Living dead and it’s 1978 follow up Dawn Of The Dead are both among my favourite films and have both proved highly influential to filmmakers.
Sadly, Romero seems to have lost his edge as the series has progressed. 1985’s Day Of The Dead is interesting enough but lacks some of the flair of the first two films. We would have to wait another twenty years for the next installment (no doubt inspired by the revival of the genre thanks to the likes of 28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead), the hugely inferior but still watchable Land Of The Dead. The fact it starred Dennis Hopper probably helped. It must have made some money as a couple of years later Romero churned out Diary Of The Dead and in doing so produced a ninety five minute testimony to the law of diminishing returns.
Following a group of college students who become aware of the emerging global disaster of the dead rising from the grave whilst shooting a film out on location it presents us with a found footage style “documentary” of how this group deals with the situation. Obsessed film student Jason (Close) insists on capturing all the events on film as a record for future generations and to help people understand what is happening. Dragged into the mess are his girlfriend Debra (Morgan) the sort of identikit gutsy female lead all US produced horror films seem to have these days and a motley crew of their college friends, not to mention their alcoholic professor, who band together in their struggle to come to terms with and survive the rise of the undead.
It’s pretty turgid stuff and tragically it predominantly stems from some terrible writing. Sorry George but it falls seriously wide of the mark from the very beginning. Tiresome dialogue, underdeveloped characters and terminal over earnestness dog the proceedings. There is an irksome voice over throughout but this is nothing compared to the constant references to the trappings of the media age. The endless discussions about uploading footage to the ‘net, the constant flow of data coming in from websites and mobile networks and citizen journalism counteracting the forced misinformation from the official media are dull and heavy handed. Where the social commentary at play in Night and Dawn played out in subtext and subtlety, here it is shoehorned into the film from the very beginning. Unsubtle, unwarranted and unnecessary.
It is impossible to sympathise with the characters in any way whatsoever. Jason’s overbearing pomposity makes you wish he would just get eaten. They talk about the desire to document events on camera as if it were crack addiction. Debra’s po faced earnestness is laughable. At an early stage, one character’s reflexive action to run over a couple of zombies results in the transition to suicide in the space of about ten seconds. It’s impossible to feel any sense of threat when you actively wish harm to befall the main characters. The prize goes to Professor Maxwell (Scott Wentworth), a man who is weary of violence because of “the war” (what war?!) and apparently is a one man killing machine who has been put off guns for life. He’s quite happy to shoot zombies in the head with a bow and arrow but not a gun and is a walking, talking plausibility apocalypse.
As a “found footage” format it fails completely. It tries to vary things a little and give a different perspective from a mobile phone camera and ultimately a second camera when another of the group succumbs to the evil temptation to document what’s happening but ultimately all that results is a film that is visually rather boring. Compare this to Rec (the only found footage horror film I’ve seen that works) and the Spanish horror blows it totally out of the water with its well thought out shots and dynamic visual style. If you want to make a found footage film then the effect has to be that you are in the thick of things, feeling every tense moment and fear of the unknown as it occurs to the characters. By constructing it as a finished film with a voiceover it destroys the effect.
Diary Of The Dead is a spectacular disappointment considering the fact it has emerged from the mind of the Zombie King himself. The whole thing smacks of lazy cash in. It’s attempt to hold a mirror up to the information sharing, web literate generation falls flat on its face thanks to its clumsy approach. The fact that this has come from Romero himself does admittedly handicap it with the weight of expectation but for it to be such a total and unmitigated disappointment is unforgivable. On the strength of this I have little desire to see the sixth (and one can only pray) final installment in the series, 2009’s Survival Of The Dead. As much as it pains me to say it, perhaps it’s finally time for Romero to retire from the world of the undead.