George A. Romero recently celebrated his 4th decade in the film business. Originally attempting to make an Ingmar Berman-inspired coming-of-age film in the Middle Ages (SUMMER WITH MONIKA meets THE SEVENTH SEAL?), funding was (fortunately) not forthcoming due to investor insouciance and he ended up making the watershed NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD instead. This put him on the map to becoming a widely-respected genre director many people have desired to work with.
Never one to shy away from making films that both entertain and make social commentary (think Rod Serling’s TWILIGHT ZONE), Romero’s films have been dissected by audiences and critics alike. Some have even gone so far as to say that NIGHT represents the various stages of sleep. DAWN OF THE DEAD presents a horrifying view of the world where the zombies are now in abundance and this time invade a shopping mall. Critics have drawn parallels with the “blind leading the blind” mentality of the zombies representing American spendthrifts who willingly engage in consumerism at the behest of advertising. DAY OF THE DEAD went so far as to give the zombies some intelligence beyond walk slowly and eat people. LAND OF THE DEAD gave us�Dennis Hopper. Which isn’t a bad thing; he’s just the last person I’d expect to see in a film by a Maverick from Pittsburgh, PA.
Now Romero brings us DIARY OF THE DEAD, a new film that speaks to the audience in ways that the previous films couldn’t. Spurning the conventional omniscient narrative in favor of a first-person in-your-face CLOVERFIELD technique that is becoming more prevalent nowadays, DIARY represents a sign of the times in style and logistics by employing the use of a handheld camera. The audience is thrown right into the action as a group of college students are making a horror film in the woods near Somerset, PA.
They overhear about an outbreak that occurs at the location of the news coverage of a domestic dispute that has resulted in the deaths of several individuals when the victims inexplicably came back to life. From the very first frame we are forced to identify with Jason (Joshua Close of THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE), the protagonist and self-appointed savior who feels that it is both his duty and moral obligation to document as much of the carnage as possible for the purpose of uploading it to the Web so as to inform those who don’t know about the devastation.
It’s an admirable albeit misguided attempt to be helpful a la Dr. Phil that backfires when the cast and crew with whom he escapes are now running for their lives and are under the constant eye of Jason’s roving camera, who asks them time and time again how they are holding up under the strain of the incredible circumstances they are forced to confront. This results in much bickering with his girlfriend Debra (Michelle Morgan of television’s Heartland), Tony (Shawn Roberts of television’s Falcon Beach), Tracy (Amy Ciupak Lelonde of television’s Sophie), and several other people along for the ride.
Desperate to find other people who have not yet been infected, they stumble across a hospital inhabited by zombies. Joshua is content to record the mayhem, but it never occurs to him to relinquish his role as a documentarian and trade it in for co-zombie killer.
Debra wants desperately to get home to her parents and younger brother. Along the way they lose several of their friends through zombie attacks that overwhelm them, but finally manage to get food, water, and gas for their RV. When Debra eventually makes it home, her inevitable find is heartbreakingly rendered with an incredible cinematographic tarantella made possible by the small high-definition camera: in one take, the action begins outside, moves into the garage, back into the house, up the stairs, and back down into the house.
The film’s ending leaves the door open for a sequel, which could very well be a direct continuation of the story with the same characters.
Greg Nicotero once again provides his signature special effects, though there are some that are obviously digital.
The one thing that Romero’s films have done far better than most from a similar vein is create a universe of palpable dread. In NIGHT, DAWN and DAY, the threat of the main characters being overrun by the zombies is always imminent which constantly keeps the audience on edge. DIARY is no exception. With this film, Romero enters the digital realm full-throttle with a terrific return to his roots with this film, a gutsy and frightening look at the living dead and the media run amok. Genre fans should be pleased.