In the DVD format, Diary Of The Dead is almost small enough to occupy its native resolution, for George Romero has here eschewed his former cinematic spectacle – and the enjoyable retro big-screen stylings of 2005’s Land Of The Dead – for a self-consciously low-res approach that delights in its awkwardness, sleight-of-hand editing and guerrilla-filmmaking aesthetic. DotD deals with films being made in the Web 2.0 age. The YouTube age. The Garb Age.
The characters – a bunch of inept film students making a mummy-movie when the zombie outbreak strikes – are the self-same species of web-obsessed exhibitionists/citizen-reporters about which Romero is so dubious in the commentary track and in the extras on disc 2.
The fact that Romero seems to bear a deep disapproval for ‘citizen produced’ news could be one of the problems with the film itself, as – for the first time in any of the Romero zombie movies – we get the distinct feeling that the film-maker does not like or sympathise with his benighted (or even beheaded) characters.
In actual fact Romero shows no more contempt for the fugitive film-making kids than all the other producers knocking off teenagers in the slew of current slasher/hacker/torture/survival-horror pics that anyone seems to feel (sadly, with some truth) will turn a buck these days. Trouble is, George Romero is not just anyone, and I would have hoped he was above this kind of thing, having given us such great characters in all the preceding Dead flicks (including the oft-criticised Land).
I do understand the note of satire that is intended with Diary, which arguably owes more to Spinal Tap than Day Of The Dead, but the mockumentaries that Romero’s latest often resembles featured interesting characters who were ridiculed but nonetheless treated with some affection. And frankly, the acting and dialogue was a lot better.
It’s a bloody shame, because Diary was a terrific opportunity for Romero to undertake the kind of low-budget, opportunistic project that made his name and really show these kids how it’s done. The truth is his negative views on the YouTube era are probably not shared by the very target audience that the film’s producers were so excited about engaging in Diary, and thus the central dynamic of the satire is dead from the first frame – and it ain’t getting up either.
I’m twenty-five years younger than Romero, and I certainly don’t understand the psychology of the age-group that he is trying to deal with in this work. And I’m pretty damn sure he understands them even less. So no matter how well the film is executed – and the production standard of Diary Of The Dead is sky-high when you remove the intentional filter of grunginess – it starts from a premise which may or may not be faulty, but which is certainly approached in a misdirected manner…and, sadly, with some considerable cynicism.
So what are we left with? A picaresque zombie-movie told with some of the most problematic first-person POV work in any of the many films that have tried it in the years since The Blair Witch Project . The perennial problem of why these idiots would keep shooting is handled in Diary with the absurd notion that ‘kids today’ are more attached to their creative egos than their very lives – an absurd conceit that keeps the cameras rolling but stretches credulity beyond the twang-snap stress-point.
Additionally, the cuts between the cameras the students are holding often reveal an unconscionable level of cheating- having adopted the conceit, Romero proves to be one of the laziest practitioners of it, and it’s a pity he didn’t get a screening of Cloverfield in before he made the cut.
If this criticism seems harsh, it’s only because it comes from someone who utterly loves the preceding four movies, and who considers Day Of The Dead to be the most effective and perfect zombie movie ever made. If Rob Zombie had come up with Diary Of The Dead, it’s possible that it would have gotten an extra star – but then, everything is relative.
The gore this time round is exceptionally hard to watch, perhaps some of the nastiest stuff Romero has turned out since Day, and about this I have no complaints. The ‘acid head melting’ scene is deliciously repulsive, whilst the inventive ‘electric paddle’ death is both sickening and compelling.
But ultimately Diary Of The Dead is nothing but a grab-bag of vitriolic thread-comments that have been unnaturally morphed into a full-length movie of disappointingly little note.
I was going to give this film two stars, but the DVD release gets pared down to 1 star for preceding the main feature with unskippable trailers for other Optimum films (where the maximum fast-forward speed is forced down to 8x) – a typical indication of the cynicism and ennui of the whole project.
Extras:Evidently jealous of (or enthused by) Simon Pegg’s exhaustive extras set on Shaun Of The Dead, Diary goes flat out for a comprehensive pastiche of a hokey internet interface (complete with missing ad banners), and as complete a set of extras as any film fan could hope for. Sadly, Diary is not in the same league as Shaun (it may not even be playing the same fucking sport), but if you do want to know more, you’re definitely in luck…
[n.b. – I have noted a few discrepencies in the runtimes stated on the menus vs. practical runtimes – the difference seems a bit excessive for the Pal pull-down effect…]
Disc 1 Commentary by George Romero, editor Michael Doherty and director of photography Adam Swica.
Into The Camera [17.03 mins] – junket-style interviews with cast and crew.
Speak Of The Dead [15.54 mins]- a segment of a Romero appearance/talk in Canada in 2007.
Master Of The Dead [5.57 mins] – George Romero interview.
A New ‘Spin On Death’ [8.22 mins ] – fairly entertaining – and sickening – look at the CGI grue of Diary.
You Look Dead! [10.00 mins] – a look at the practical make-up effects of the film.
A World Gone Mad [5.57 mins] – the photography and design of Diary Of The Dead.
UK Exclusive Interview at Frightfest ’08 [19.02 mins] – despite the title, a sedate and private interview with Romero, where he expounds on his hatred of internet journalism, amongst other topics.
Character Confessionals [20.37 mins] – Big Brother-style to-camera pieces from the actors, shot during the making of Diary but never used in any way in the film. Banal.
Familiar Voices [audio: 5.13 mins] – Stephen King, Simon Pegg and Guillermo Del Toro all had their voices featured in the background miasma on Diary’s soundtrack. Here are the complete versions.
Shorts: The First Week [4.23 mins, though DVD menu claims length of 7.11 mins] – Independent film maker Michael Felsher goes on set for the first week of principal photography of Diary.
Shorts: The Roots [2.03 mins, though the DVD menu claims length of 5.02 mins] – Romero repeats the same stuff he has said about Diary in ten other places on the release.
Night Of The Living Dead: One For The Fire [1.hr 23 mins, claimed as 1.hr 35 mins on DVD menu] – a full-length documentary detailing the history and making of the original Night Of The Living Dead, with many interviews and recollections. Excellent.