Dimension Films // 2007 // 96 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // June 2nd, 2008
Shoot the dead.
Many of the faithful saw Romero's previous zombie flick Land of the Dead as a misstep: it's not a bad film per se but doesn't break ground like his other undead films. No doubt the fact that 28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead had raised the bar didn't help. When news leaked that the film was going to be shot in first person (like The Blair Witch Project), many were skeptical, including this reviewer. However, after watching this DVD of Diary of the Dead, all I have to say is "Welcome back, George."
Okay, obviously "Welcome back" isn't the only thing I have to say. Diary takes us back to the beginning of the plague rather than continuing the progression of his previous trilogy. Diary is structured as a film within a film (called The Death of Death), and we open with some discussion of the start of the undead phenomena. We also learn that "Jay" (Joshua Close, The Exorcism of Emily Rose) was trying to make a film about what was happening, and the unseen narrator has agreed to finish editing it. From then on, we generally follow the documentary that Jay was making, with occasional editorial asides from the editor/narrator, who we learn is Debra (Michelle Morgan). In the film within the film, we follow film student Jay and his crew from their woodsy location where they are shooting Jay's horror movie senior film. There, they learn that the dead are returning to life. The rest of the film follows them as they deal with the fallout of this eerie situation.
If we can judge a person's psychology by the films they make, then George Romero is the kind of guy who likes to pick up rocks to see what kinds of creepy crawlers live beneath them. With Night he showed us the ugly underbelly of small-town life; with Dawn it was suburban consumerism; and Day pulled no punches in its depiction of the dark side of the military mindset. Even Land returned to the theme of wealth and consumerism again. Diary continues this trend, but with the media as a target for Romero's obsession with the consequences of modern life. The film is set in a world where news of the zombie plague travels as fast (if not faster) than the plague itself as blogs, feeds, and more traditional news media all seek to spread information. Of course Romero knows that, like everything, this proliferation of information comes with a price tag: truth is that much harder to find, as governments try to spin the story while other groups race to put up the rawest footage the fastest. I won't spend any more time discussing Romero's themes (they're more fun to discover on your own), but I will say that this is one of the more cerebral, self-reflective horror films released recently.
Enough about the brains of the film, on to the guts. In case you haven't seen the film, and the idea of a first-person Blair Witch/Cloverfield camera style scares you to the bone, take heart: there are no fast zombies in Romero-land. The undead shamble, stalk, and generally wander towards their prey. Coupled with the first-person perspective we get a mounting sense of dread rather than the jumpier scares of the recent crop of zombie films. I wasn't a big fan of Blair Witch, and I found the camera style annoying because I wasn't convinced there was anything off-camera to be afraid of. In Diary of the Dead, I know exactly what horrors lurk out of frame, so the scenes in which the group was threatened were genuinely tense.
As for the blood and guts, the film earns its R rating with style. We get intestines, eye violence, gunshots, impalings, all the things a zombie fan could ask for. We get young zombies, old zombies, and everything in between. Gone, however, are the likes of Bub or Big Daddy. All we get are the slow and stupid variety of gut-muncher. I'm okay with that, since the progression in the previous films was getting a bit stale.
I should also warn you that Diary is not a character-driven film. We get quick sketches (Jay's a jerk for turning the camera on everyone, the Professor is a drunken intellectual, Debra is the bitch with a sensitive side), but the film is less about the characters and more about the situation. Many a horror movie has been hurt by poor characterization, but Diary makes up for it with likable archetypes and its "you are there" camera style. Within the framework of this kind of story, the acting is pretty hard to judge, but I was never bothered by anyone overacting or underacting.
While not a super-packed special edition, this DVD of Diary of the Dead is sure to please zombie fans. The video and audio presentation is excellent. The overall film is very dark, and the blacks on this transfer feel black. There's no substitute for a big budget, but the look of this disc is great. The audio is likewise well-done. There are a number of scenes that feature overlapping audio and various effects. All are clear and well balanced, which helps to maintain the creepy atmosphere.
The extras also offer a lot to sink your teeth into. The centerpiece is the 80-minute documentary on the making of the film, which includes interviews with all the major players behind Diary. The other big extra is an audio commentary with George Romero, director of photography Adam Swica, and editor Michael Doherty. They chat about the technical details while also offering insight into Romero's conception of the film's politics. We also get character "confessions," which are like deleted scenes as the various characters sit in front of the camera and discuss themselves and their situation. There's some interesting acting going on in these segments. It's definitely worth a look if you enjoyed the film. I also enjoyed the "Familiar Voices" feature because we get to hear some of the (famous) people responsible for the wonderful voiceover work in Diary. Expect to hear genre luminaries Guillermo Del Toro, Simon Pegg, and Stephen King. The rest of the extras are fairly slight, including a montage of the first week's shooting and a bunch of films from a MySpace contest, but it's hard to complain, considering the wealth of other extras.
Many of the (digital) effects look pretty cheesy. I understand that, with the lack of closeups allowed by the decision to go first-person, the usual makeup magic of Tom Savini wasn't available. I also know that the budget wasn't that high (a couple of million). This doesn't change the fact that digital blood sucks. I think the variability in the quality bothered me more than the unsightly effects. Some effects shots looked convincing and scary while others looked like they were made by the film students portrayed in the movie. I feel like I could have gotten used to either good effects or bad ones, but the jarring switches were distracting.
On a character note, the professor seems imported from another movie. Don't get me wrong, I like him as a character (even if he is a bit over the top), but he just doesn't fit the overall vibe of the film.
I highly doubt that any film could meet the high expectations created by the original Dead trilogy. That said, Diary of the Dead is a worthy entry into the zombie canon, and one I have no trouble recommending.
Not guilty. Welcome back, George.
Review content copyright © 2008 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Dimension Films
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Audio Commentary with Writer/Director George A. Romero, Director of Photography Adam Swica, and Editor Michael Doherty
* "For the Record": Documentary on Cast, Crew, and Creation
* "The Roots": Inspiration for the Film
* "The First Week": A Visit to the Set
* "Familiar Voices": Cameo Outtakes
* "MySpace Contest Winners:" 5 Zombie Films from Filmmaker Fans
* "Character Confessionals"
* Official MySpace Page