I like George Romero. I really do. He’s maybe the only director who could have about four or five films in my top fifty of all time list. This perhaps even makes him my favourite director. He’s also a genuinely lovely guy. That said, I’m not such a blind fan that I like EVERYTHING he’s done. I’ll be the first one to admit that Monkey Shines was one of the most hilariously bad movies ever made and The Dark Half was cringeworthy enough to make me never want to see another movie starring Timothy Hutton as long as I lived, but hey. For the most part, Romero rules okay. Diary of the Dead, sadly, is his worst film to date. See, I can tolerate bad films. “Bad” is subjective. What I really hate is incoherence. Sloppiness. Lack of care and attention. Sadly, this is precisely what’s wrong with Diary of the Dead.
It doesn’t really have a plot as such; it’s straight survival horror (a pack of characters isolated and pitted against an undead horde). The bit that’s meant to grab you is the way in which it’s (supposedly) shot. The ‘survivors’ here are film students who are interrupted in the process of shooting a bad horror movie (natch) by the news that the dead are returning to life. Thinking this is a good opportunity to make some important historical footage, their leader Jason keeps the cameras rolling and, at one point even, posts the footage on MySpace (getting 72,000 hits in 8 minutes!).
In itself, this is a good enough way of putting a contemporary slant on old themes and whilst the technique has been used before, that’s not to say it’s not worth using again. However, it simply doesn’t work here. Rather than stick to a hand-held camera, Romero uses the conceit that Jason’s girlfriend Debra has ‘edited together’ a ‘movie’ after the events. She explains at the start (in droning voiceover) that she’s added music “to scare you” (!). What this actually does is repeatedly break you from the mood that’s trying to be generated from using ‘realistic’ footage and remind you that you’re in a movie. The voiceover barges its way into the action at some very inopportune times too and never says anything that isn’t already being shown. It’s like it’s been added for dummies. The film is a constant series of unecessary expositions with nothing being allowed to breathe. Likewise, the music never feels anything but inappropriate. By sitting on the fence between a proper polished movie and hand-held home-made footage, Diary of the Dead works as neither. It’s just a mess.
There are numerous GLARING technical/logical errors too. A scene towards the end has three characters talking in a kitchen. Only of them holds a camera and yet it repeatedly switches between two separate ‘hand-held’ angles throughout the dialogue. By conveniently finding (and then swiftly abandoning) a second camera towards the start of the film, Romero tries to get away with seemingly have no clue at all for most of its duration who is holding the camera or why. Also, whenever someone gets behind the lens, they appear to go silent, so we never feel as though the “first person” is truly involved in the action.
Additionally, footage is edited into Debra’s movie that comes from sources she would be unable to logically get her hands on (ie: phones owned by characters who are killed or who run away earlier in the film). It’s these kind of holes that keep pulling you ‘out’ from the conceit and, more dishearteningly, it adds NOTHING to the film. It’s like you get the loss of gaping plotholes but without any benefit to redress the balance.
I think the problem is that Romero does not understand the medium. The point he tries to make is about the way history is documented to the Nth degree by new technology these days and how even in the face of great horror, the bloggers keep on blogging and the news keep on streaming. He seems unable to decide whether this is a good or a bad thing for much of the movie but, more crucially, he’s clearly not done his research. Although he makes passing, awkward mention of “blogs” and “YouTube”, he fails to demonstrate any understanding of them. His characters, rather than making videos that you could believe would be posted on the Internet by film students, are clearly in a film. It is lit, shot and edited like a professional (and occasionally even rather stylish in a sub-Argento type of way) movie – it’s NOT a video blog. It’s not even like Lonelygirl15. If you’re going to attack the medium through (essentially) satirical imitation, at least study it first. Not to mention it again but the voiceover is a clear demonstration of this ignorance. Vloggers generally talk directly to the camera, thus elimating the need for one. There are so many easy opportunities in which Romero could’ve utilised the medium but he avoids each and every one of them.
The cast are dreadful too. Michelle Morgan, although not given much to work with as Debra, sleepwalks through her role with a glassy-eyed vapidity not seen since Keanu Reeves in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Scott Wentworth, an aging upper-class Englishman, plays the group’s mentor/professor and whilst he makes reference to having studied at Eton, he – on one occasion – bursts into an absolutely absurd monologue about having “fought in the war” and how he had to kill “that sonofabitch” and “this sonofabitch” (Vietnam? The Gulf?). Either he was chronically miscast, badly written or maybe a bit of both. Whichever way, he fails to convince as anything beyond a two-dimensional spoof character, something which reaches its peak when he arms himself with a comedy bow and arrow, stating that it’s “more friendly” than a handgun!
I HATE to make this comparison because one film had probably twenty times the budget of the other but Cloverfield is a textbook example of how to use this same technique effectively. It’s everything Diary of the Dead is not. Hud, Cloverfield‘s ‘camera’, needs to tell us only once that he is shooting for posterity and, by Christ, we believe him. Despite a giant monster being perhaps the most extreme example of “something that can only happen in movies”, the skillful script and almost flawless direction makes us believe we’re not watching one. By contrast, Diary‘s Jason babbles continuously about why he is still filming and still it seems confusing and utterly unfeasible. Cloverfield is virtually wall-to-wall tension, whereas Diary is just a clutter of embarrassing, unrealistic and over-theatrical dialogue interspersed with shock-value CGI gore FX. With Cloverfield, we are pulled almost immediately into the conceit and feel right there in the thick of it, forgetting for the vast majority of the film that it’s scripted. It feels natural. Diary, however, could not feel more staged and contrived if the actors were holding a wooden sword in one hand and a copy of the script in the other. Grimly ironic considering the characters’ assertions that they want to show “the truth” and “something real”.
Even without that unfortunate comparison, Diary of the Dead is still a jumbled-up, unfocused and careless failure. It’s hard to believe that a veteran director with so many great films under his belt could make so many hellacious, amateurish mistakes. Even if we were to give him the benefit of the doubt and play the postmodern card (“Well, it’s a movie made by film students”), it still wouldn’t make sense. There’s not a single thing about it that works… and don’t think that’s not the saddest thing I’ve had to admit in years. Might be time to put that retirement plan in action now, George.