After a twenty-year gap between the underrated Day of the Dead and the equally underrated Land of the Dead, zombie godfather George Romero would return to relaunch the most celebrated brand in the zombie genre with a found-footage reboot seeking to skewer the ills of a plugged-in society in Diary of the Dead. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
Presupposing that the zombie outbreak occurs in 2004 and lacking any sort of relevant reference to his previous work, Diary of the Dead opens in contemporary Pennsylvania, where a group of pretentious film students in the midst of making a shitty horror film turn their cameras on a burgeoning undead outbreak and muse on the role of the media in shaping the public perception of a world-wide pandemic.
Whereas Land of the Dead, the previous and canonically final entry into the legendary horror series, had left off on a high note, Diary of the Dead fumbles the ball from the very start; underwritten characters garble their third-rate dialogue and fail to believably relate their story through a series of awkward monologues and even more awkward voice-overs that perpetuate the film from start to finish. Even worse, Romero previously possessed a penchant for making even walk-on characters relatable in an apocalypse, but here the protagonists are so predictable that it’s impossible to desire anything other than a quick demise for each of them.
The main character, who is ostensibly the filmmaker, is driven endlessly to finish his film in a much more empty fashion than his genre counterpart Heather Donohue, who shepherded The Blair Witch Project to its fateful conclusion. His girlfriend thinks he’s an ass, while a more level-headed associate jockeys for her affections. A southern character repeatedly fulfills her roles’ insistence for backwoods charm, accompanied by the odd and extremely annoying musical flourish, while the stereotypical British film professor dourly inserts droll commentary that is as annoying as it is stilted.
Romero has previously shown a penchant for oddball characters: the catatonic Barbara in Night of the Living Dead, the exuberant Wooley of Dawn of the Dead, the overbearing Steele in Day of the Dead, and the flamboyantly maniacal Kaufman in Land of the Dead. With the exception of the latter entry, each of these roles were both minor and somewhat poorly acted, a duo so deceptive that the characters emerge as the kind of person you studiously avoid at the workplace. It’s completely refreshing in moderation, but in Diary of the Dead, every single character behaves this way. Romero often had close to a decade to cobble his ideas between entries in the Dead series, so perhaps the rush to capitalize on the zombie zeitgeist caught him flatfooted.
What makes the failure complete is that Diary of the Dead presents several ideas that are not capitalized upon. The opening features a news reporter catching one of the opening scenes of the zombie apocalypse, and later on the protagonists find the footage online edited to suggest a more favorable outcome for law enforcement. Yes, the media has been known to twist elements of a story to wring out the drama or creatively edit clips for the same purpose. What this allegedly means for the plot is that the protagonists have to push forward to present their unadulterated vision of the apocalypse. Which will be edited so the boring parts are removed. If this is making any salient point about media culture, I must be missing it.
Also, Diary of the Dead is rarely scary. Or thrilling. Or funny, intentionally or otherwise.
Though Romero occasionally entreats us to interesting plot devices and scene set-ups, such as a lengthy exposition sequence in a hospital, an attempt to reconnect with the families of the protagonists, a run-in with a group of unsavory soldiers that would unfortunately be followed in the next installment Survival of the Dead, the individual sequences fail to generate any thematic traction and thus stumble toward the next embarrassing rendition of boring character development without enough gusto to embolden even the most hardened of genre aficionados.
Unfortunately, the majority of the sequences call their artifice to bear; a great example would be the protagonists running into an Amish farmer who eventually ends up killing himself in the most hardcore way imaginable. The scene feels like a distraction from the plot rather than an addition, and like the rest of the characters, the Amish man is quickly forgettable enough to permit his hollow characterization.
The only thing Diary of the Dead really has going for it is the sensation that the film unfolds like a nightmare; characters constantly make bad decisions, some scenes are bad enough to warrant an incomprehensibly mythic status, and a late rejoinder to earlier in the film involving a few tired genre tropes that is so meta it calls into question whether or not the material being lampooned is to be parodied or embraced.
The moment that stands out most in Diary of the Dead is one in which Romero himself pops in for a cameo; unlike Dawn of the Dead, where the director is so strategically placed that he might be missed altogether, Romero is placed at the center of the action on a TV broadcast in a move that seems predicated toward reminding genre fans that they are watching one of the legendary director’s films. Unfortunately, that’s not enough to save Diary of the Dead from the depths of an obscurity it so richly deserves.