Synopsis: From legendary frightmaster George A. Romero comes “one of the most daring, hypnotic and absolutely vital horror films of the past decade” (fangoria.com). Romero continues his influential “Dead” series, this time focusing on a terrified group of college film students who record the pandemic rise of flesh-eating zombies while struggling for their own survival. Intensely gruesome and relentlessly grisly – fueled by the director’s signature realistic special effects – Diary of the Dead is must-see horror that “is Romero at his finest” (bloody-disgusting.com).
Despite adoring pretty much each of Romero’s “Dead” films so far, I approached this one with some reticence: reviews weren’t very good, and the basic concept (reality TV meets horror) had been done before and not particularly well with ‘Halloween: Resurrection’. So I was a little concerned that Romero might have jumped the shark with this effort.
I should have known better. With Romero’s penchant for social commentary, I should have clued in to the likelihood that he would try to make a statement about, not only reality TV, but also on the current role of media in North American society. While he’s never exactly been especially eloquent or refined in his approach (he makes zombie movies, for God’s sake! ;), his musings have always been food for thought and, I think, pretty much on the mark.
In what amounts to his fifth undead film (‘The Crazies’ doesn’t count, even though it has similarities with the genre), Romero decided to take on our preparenedness for huge, nation-wide emergencies and how societies can break down into small self-serving packs. He clearly is of the mind that societies disintegrate when they are truly tested, when things really don’t go as planned (the events of the last ten years in North America probably supports that notion, actually).
He also comments on immigration, a huge issue in the United States and one that might be boiling up in Canada soon. He appears to be saying that there are more pressing things than worrying about people crossing the border illegally, that blaming our problems on immigrants is all too frequent and that it shouldn’t be bought into without some scepticism (it should be noted that Romero has, in recent years, decided to make Toronto his home and has received Canadian citizenship).
He also questions journalistic integrity and responsibility. Should a journalist eschew responsibility for supposed ‘neutrality’? Should someone with a camera stay on the sidelines when something is happening so as to capture “the truth”? What if lives are in the balance? What then? And what about giving the media more importance than it deserves (at one point in the film, an ambulance is moved out of the camera’s way at a journalist’s request)? Have we crossed a line?
With all this journalistic bias, what is the “truth”? How can we know what is real? And, in an age of constant “connectivity”, how can one discern the truth from the spam, anyway? Where is the truth in a world full of constant chatter? While it’s clear that Romero has a bias in this dialogue, he brings up excellent questions that all of us should discuss – especially before it gets too late and we can’t see beyond the noses on our faces.
Romero also decided to tackle our exhibitionist and voyeuristic society, in which we tend to be bystanders more than doers. With technology advancing at a demented rate, everyone has cameras in their pockets/purses, on their phones, on their computers, in their work places, in public places, …etc. And with the misnomered “reality” TV as popular as it is, many people feel that they only exist when they are recorded and seen by as many people as possible (it explains the Youtube phenomenon to a large extent).
We also tend to like to watch other people. This serves to fuel others’ exhibitionistic tendencies, because it appears to justify their beliefs and actions. The fact that we have celebrities whose popularity is not based on doing anything whatsoever truly speaks to this. But, by being voyeuristic, aren’t we becoming passive and ALSO not doing anything? It’s a strange dance wherein some people watch while others try to attract attention and no one contributes anything except to this dance. (confession: this also speaks to massive amounts of TV and movie watching – of which I am totally guilty!)
Finally, Romero ask the question: “Are we worth saving?”. Being pretty much the last thing brought up in this film, no answers are provided and there is no insight into the filmmaker’s mind. But, after all that he has questioned in the span of a 90-minute zombie film, it seems to me that it would be highly enlightening to have a sit-down, one-on-one conversation with him. I’m sure that the old hippy would have a lot to say and would say it with candour and joie-de-vivre.
Because, despite the fact that it’s all done the context of a zombie film, and that his questions could be weighty for some, Romero has fun with all of this. Obviously, the whole point of his films is to entertain… all the while making people think while he’s doing it. I believe that this is what makes some horror films transcend the space from “movie” to “cinema”, much like the best science-fiction films always discuss societal issues in a veiled manner.
While ‘Diary’ may appear to be too convoluted or to have too many themes running at once, it’s simply not the case. In fact, Romero tends to bluntly put his questions to the audience and move on, so there isn’t much duelling between the various observations he makes. I actually feel that he could have explored the subjects more than he ended up doing. Except that it’s a zombie movie, and there’s probably no way that he could have done that while also maintaining his audience. So I think that he struck a fine balance here.
The real weak points of the film, are that Romero chose to centre the story on a group of (mostly) teenagers. It somewhat reduces the proceedings into one of those teen horror films that are a dime a dozen and that are usually of little quality and entertainment value. I’m sure that Romero intentionally did this because it makes sense – they’re of a generation that is most involved and affected by the digital era of communication. Still, the film would have had more resonance if it was populated with mature characters instead.
As well, Romero has gravitated towards to the more facile, but unconvincing, world of CGI special effects. In the past, he had always used special effects artists and many of his films feature the most groundbreaking SFX scenes in motion picture history. For whatever reason (time? cost? laziness?), Romero has now embraced computer-rendered effects. And it shows: while some might hate the look of hand-made, “live” effects, I believe that the less theatrical and more conventional look of CGI basically neuters horror films; they’re meant to be relatively visceral experiences, so you should be able to feel it. With CGI, you don’t feel anything.
Aside from this, ‘Diary of the Dead’ is a pretty potent entry in the zombie genre. With a different set of characters, I think that it would have been one of Romero’s best films and one for the ages. But, as it stands, the characters’ lack of substance, while entirely representative of the people Romero is warning against becoming, can leave the viewer equally as vacant.
Which brings us to the final question that this film poses: really, when you think about it, who are the dead in ‘Diary of the Dead’? The undead, or the living?