I had an English teacher who once said, “We have all been mediatized. This is a generation that has been robbed of its innocence.” This has stayed with me since because nothing could be truer. She said this back in 1994, back when we had yet to fully discover the internet, and we were not yet addicted to Facebook, You Tube or our cell phones. She remarked of when she watched a trailer for “Far from Home: The Adventures of Yellow Dog.” It looked like a very innocent movie, and yet there were teenagers in front of her who said, “This looks so lame!” As a result, she felt they were robbed of any chance of enjoying this movie as they were more interested in watching something which was its polar opposite. When you combine the loss of innocence to the ever-growing world of technology, it is apparent there is no going back to the way things were. We are now more “mediatized” than ever, and it’s hard to imagine what it would be like to live without the internet or cell phones.
This is the main sticking point of George Romero’s zombie flick, “Diary of The Dead,” as he takes aim at a generation so sucked into You Tube and of watching things not just from a distance, but an emotional distance as well. We have become so enamored of watching disasters and car crashes from afar to where it appears we have been robbed of our ability to actually help others. As a result, Romero’s vision of humanity is especially bleak as he wonders if it is even worth saving.
The movie starts off as a film within a film as we watch a horror movie turned documentary called “The Death of Death.” The horror film itself is not going well as everything is behind schedule and the crew and actors are restless. All of a sudden, they hear on the news of the dead coming back to life, and everything changes forever. Some head home, and others head to the college to rescue their girlfriends. From then on, it’s a race for survival as the world is soon overrun by zombies, or so the internet and television tells them. What are they gonna believe?
“Diary of The Dead” could be seen as being released too late as “Cloverfield” had arrived in theaters just before. Both films are shot in a handheld style, but whereas “Cloverfield” used the technique as a gimmick, “Diary of The Dead” uses it as a commentary on our fascination with watching the worst life has to offer. Many people went crazy and beyond nauseous with the camerawork in “Cloverfield,” but those same people will be relieved to see Romero and his Director of Photography Adam Swica have reined it in to where it shouldn’t alienate the audience.
The film crew on “The Death of Death” is made up of different characters. There’s the director, Jason (Joshua Close), who believes if it didn’t happen on camera, it never happened at all. There’s his girlfriend, Debra (Michelle Morgan), who gets increasingly annoyed at his filming everybody, Tony (Shawn Roberts) who always looks like he is prepared to beat Jason to death, and there’s the drunken film professor, Maxwell (Scott Wentworth), who looks upon everything with a bemused detachment. What Romero succeeds in doing as a writer is giving us characters who aren’t simply types. If they come across as clichéd, he and the actors subvert those clichés as each character becomes increasingly unpredictable in their actions.
Romero also gives us strong characters who are females and minorities. He started doing this years ago with “Night of The Living Dead,” and he continues this tradition here. The female character who is the strongest in “Diary” is Debra as she is driven to get back to her family and is not about to get sucked into watching everything through a camera lens. Michelle Morgan gives this movie its best performance, and she also narrates the film within the film which gives you a pretty good idea of what happens to her character in the end (or does it?).
While the crew ventures home in an old and stuffy Winnebago, they run into all sorts of people who are quickly learning how to survive in a world being overrun by zombies. They run into a squad of African Americans who have taken over a small town and refuse to leave. This is because, for once, they have power over something they have never power over before, and you could see it as a revenge for all they have been put through over the years. There is also a deaf Amish man who provides some of the funniest moments as he blows up zombies with dynamite before introducing himself to the frenzied group of film students.
What makes these “Dead” movies so relevant even after four decades is they are really social commentary movies designed as zombie movies. Romero looks at how society is enslaved by its own wants, needs, beliefs and prejudices in. “Night of the Living Dead” dealt with civil rights and gave us a black man as the chief protagonist, something you didn’t see in movies back then. His ultimate destiny at the film’s climax said much about the times when the movie was released. “Dawn of The Dead” dealt with our quest for materialism, wealth, and of having everything we could possibly want, and it looked at how it leaves us feeling as empty and dead as the zombies who look to tear their way into the mall for fresh human flesh. “Day of The Dead” dealt with the paranoia and crazed determination of the military and its inherent sexism. Then you had “Land of The Dead” where Romero went after the wealthiest people of all and how selfishly involved they are in their own interests, and it served as a huge criticism of Reganomics which gave us the great lie of how this great wealth and riches could be yours even though this would never be the case.
Now with “Diary,” Romero looks at our addiction to watching the unthinkable instead of doing anything to stop it. You have to look at all of Romero’s “Dead” movies in context to see they are really a long chronicle about the decline of western civilization. It all started with civil rights and the reaction to it, and it’s been downhill ever since. To call this latest film bleak is a severe understatement. Romero doesn’t seem to hold out much hope for the human race, and the last scene questions whether humans are really worth saving.
If you’re wondering about the blood and gore, there is a good deal of it in “Diary” even though it is not on the same level as “Dawn” or “Day.” Still, there are some good kills throughout, and the characters make good use of a scythe as well as a bow and arrow. Romero, after all these years, doesn’t skimp on the gory stuff. However, it still takes these characters way too long to figure out the best way to defeat a zombie, which is to shoot it in the head.
The other interesting thing about “Diary” is the way the characters and their reality are drawn out. Whereas in “Cloverfield” where there was a chance for safety and victory against what was attacking New York, there is no real hope for anyone in here. Whether or not they make it home, they quickly realize this is a conflict which will never cease. It will just get worse and worse until there is nothing left. “Diary” forces you to think about what you would do if you were in this situation, and this makes the movie all the more terrifying.
One big difference in this specific “Dead” film is, unlike the others, there is no military presence. None of the characters have a clear idea of whether or not there is even a military left. They are left to fend for themselves in a world which has gone dead on them, and their only link to the world is technology and the internet. But with everyone voicing their opinions through videos and blogs, who is to be believed when they’re so many different opinions circling all over? All you have left is chaos and anarchy, and every man and woman for themselves. The characters in this movie are smart enough to recognize this, and this makes the events for them all the more suffocating.
I liked “Diary of The Dead” a lot, and it shows Romero is still a strong force in the realm of independent filmmaking. While the first three “Dead” movies are pretty much untouchable at this point, I would put this one ahead of “Land of The Dead” which I thought was good but may have been encumbered by too much studio interference from Universal Pictures. While Universal gave Romero the money he had been begging for years to get, he’s back to his indie roots this time around and seems a lot more comfortable as a result. The movie’s pace does slow in its last half which had me a bit restless, and some moments last longer than they should have, but these are minor complaints at best.
Regardless of how bleak Romero’s worldview continues to get in each “Dead” movie, there is something to be said for his efforts to spend decades raising money to make them. There was a big lull between “Day” and “Land,” and this shows his endless determination to see his vision reach the screen one way or another. And here he is 40 years later, making a new zombie movie for generations old and new. There may be room for another one Romero zombie yet, and there is hope to be had even if our world continues falling apart. I wouldn’t mind seeing him do one more, but I hope it comes out before the apocalypse hits us.
* * * ½ out of * * * *