Monday, May 19, 2008


“Jason always wanted to be a documentary filmmaker. But for his senior class project, he decided to try to make a horror film. That’s what he was shooting on that first night. The night when… everything changed.”
-- Debra

There were a number of recent horror movies (most from 2007) that chose to utilize the shakycam aesthetic popularized by The Blair Witch Project. Some of these, in turn, seemed to have drawn inspiration from the same spot in the collective unconscious, using the DIY doc approach to address some of the issues and anxieties we, as a media-driven society, face in this age of cell phone cameras and YouTube.
One of those films was George Romero’s fifth cinematic journey to the zombie-ridden world he created four decades ago, Diary of the Dead.

Diary chronicles the first days and nights of this new age where the dead are no longer content to stay still once they’ve stopped breathing. We view this radical and very sudden change through the eyes (and lenses) of a group of students from “the Pitt,” the University of Pittsburgh, who are in the woods shooting a horror movie entitled The Death of Death.
When the fit hits the shan though, the horror movie becomes all too real.

Now, first off, despite its low budget, I do think Diary is a far more ambitious entry in Romero’s Dead series than his previous Land of the Dead. It’s also arguably more of a horror movie for the YouTube generation than another recent shakycam horror film, Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield.
However, that’s only because Diary is far less subtle in its approach.
That, for me, is one of the biggest problems of Diary: the social commentary is so heavy-handed, these kids make Michael Moore look like the Sultan of Subtle. Of course, to be fair, what we’re supposed to be seeing in Diary is a senior film student’s project, The Death of Death, so maybe the clumsy, elephantine manner in which the points are made is part of Romero’s overall scheme.
But the truth is, this isn’t actually Jason Creed’s The Death of Death that we’re watching, is it? It’s George Romero’s Diary of the Dead.

Now, when I look back at Night of the Living Dead, the social commentary is present, but it isn’t shoved down your throat. There are gut punches, certainly, particularly in the film’s final moments, but these moments aren’t accompanied by a voice-over and stock footage that belabour the point till it feels like Romero is bludgeoning me with his thoughts on why the human race may not deserve to be saved from its own largely self-propelled destruction.
And I haven’t seen either Romero’s Dawn nor Day in a yonk’s age, but I don’t recall them being as blatant and bullish as this.

There’s also the matter of Romero’s swipes at some of the other zombie-come-latelies. Yes, I do realize it is his party, but when he repeatedly makes reference to the speed at which dead things are supposed to move, and whether any dead person will come back to re-animated life or only those that have been bitten beforehand, I just have the distinct urge to yell, Yes, we get it! Now get on with the movie!
There are also the not entirely successful post-modern, self-referential touches, such as when Tony (Land of the Dead’s Shawn Roberts) refers to The Death of Death as a “Stupid f*cking mummy movie,” while their professor, Andrew Maxwell (Scott Wentworth, from TV’s Kung Fu: The Legend Continues), quickly adds, “With an underlying thread of social satire.”
Romero is, of course, referring to his own zombie movies, and though I imagine it was meant to be self-deprecating, it doesn’t quite play like Romero taking the piss out of himself. Instead, it comes off as an arm-waving tactic, drawing attention to this very film, which, if you hadn’t yet figured out, isn’t meant to be just another stupid f*cking zombie movie.

My biggest problem though, the one I feel is the key to why I quickly felt a certain distance from the actions on-screen, is the less than satisfactory performances from the cast.
Sadly, the most obvious culprits in this case are Josh Close (who plays Jason Creed, and is the main documenter of the action) and Michelle Morgan (who plays Jason’s girlfriend, Debra Moynihan). Not only are they the most prominent characters in the group, but since Jason is the driving force behind The Death of Death, he is basically the eye through which we are viewing the film.
And, to put it bluntly, Jason is a d!ck.
Jason’s character is so singularly off-putting and irritatingly fixated, that even when I get his point, I end up not giving a rat’s a$$ because he’s so distinctly unlikeable. And Close—who appeared in The Exorcism of Emily Rose and the straight-to-DVD feature The Plague—does nothing whatsoever to make the character seem sympathetic. (You can’t really admire a guy who holds his self-appointed responsibility as a “shooter” to be more important than actually lending a helping hand to a friend who’s being accosted by a flesh-hungry zombie. This happens more than once, people.)

I get the climactic debate, about chronicling and disseminating the truth, against self-preservation, but Close’s Jason doesn’t seem at all convincing in this pivotal moment (just one of several that he flubs), his words hollow and without any genuine conviction.
Morgan doesn’t help much either, her Debra never really coming across as an actual person. Debra’s occasional professions of love for Jason may just as well be Morgan reading off items on a grocery list.
Or lines from a script.
And tragically, that’s what most of the cast sound like, as if they’re spouting lines that aren’t really theirs to begin with.
I’m honestly not sure how closely Romero stuck to his script, or, if like Cloverfield, there was a fair amount of improv that went on in Diary. Because if there was, then I guess it boils down to the acting talent of the cast.
None of them seem natural, which of course, just draws attention to the fact that this is a fiction, and not a document of an actual occurrence, thus compromising the film’s basic integrity. I mean, if Cloverfield succeeded in making me buy the notion of a giant monster ravaging New York City, then I’d like to think convincing me of a zombie epidemic would be easier, right?
As it is, I can at the very least, look back at Land of the Dead and say, Hey, at least Romero had actors in it.

I wanted to like this, truly I did, and I take no pleasure in the negative vibe this review is oozing. To be honest, I don’t hate Diary; that would be for far less ambitious and lazy films (like, say, Steve Miner’s Day of the Dead redux).
Diary, like all the other Romero Dead films, is saying something. Something important.
I just wish he’d said it in a softer, and more convincing tone.

Parting shot: Reviews of Romero’s Land of the Dead and Miner’s Day of the Dead, can be found in the Archive, along with other recent zombie cinema entries, 28 Weeks Later, Plane Dead, and Boy Eats Girl.
The article “Revelations (Getting at the Truths of Apocalypse Cinema)”—which discusses Zack Synder’s Dawn of the Dead remake and Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later—can also be found in the Archive.

(Diary of the Dead OS courtesy of; images courtesy of

No comments: