Diary of the Dead (Weinstein Co.), George Romero’s fifth contribution to the zombie-movie-as-political-satire genre that he almost singlehandedly invented with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, is hardly top-drawer Romero. In fact, it may be his worst zombie film yet. But even bad Romero is a far sight more interesting than the coolly sadistic guts-porn that currently passes for mainstream horror. Diary should have been called MySpace Page of the Dead. It uploads the director’s usual obsessions (governmental paranoia, race war, and vigorous neck-chomping) into the global stream of images pouring out of our cell phones, laptops, and messaging devices. It’s no surprise that one of the movie’s sacrificial heroes is a deaf Amish farmer. Diary of the Dead is almost Luddite in its skepticism about the now-ubiquitous technology of information.
Much of Diary of the Dead is framed as a film within a film. After a grisly kickoff in which murder victims rise from their gurneys to gnaw on ambulance attendants, we meet Jason Creed (Josh Close), a cocky college student making an amateur mummy movie in the woods outside Pittsburgh, Pa. When he and his cast hear news on the radio that the dead are rising to stalk the living, Jason immediately decides to repurpose his film project as a documentary of the ongoing crisis, which he pretentiously titles The Death of Death. He and his buddies then set out in a Winnebago, with their perpetually drunk film professor (Scott Wentworth), to the childhood home of Jason’s girlfriend, Debra (Michelle Morgan). Somewhere along their zombie-strewn route, Debra must have found time to learn Final Cut Pro, because she edits together Jason’s raw footage with news reports, Internet downloads of worldwide chaos, and her own fatalistic voiceover: “In addition to trying to tell the truth, I’m trying to scare you.”
Unlike The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield, Diary of the Dead doesn’t worry too much about the verisimilitude of its found-footage conceit. Who cares how Debra got her hands on the security-camera tapes that show us some of the movie’s more imaginative deaths? (Safety tip: Don’t blow-dry your hair next to a full bathtub when there are undead flesh-eaters on the loose.) There are zombies to be killed and allegorical points to be made about America’s zombified relationship to the media, and Romero gets both jobs done guerilla-style: quick and dirty.
That’s a great approach when it comes to ghoul-dispatching. The undead, as devotees of the genre know, can be permanently killed only by destroying their brain tissue, and Diary’s resourceful cast finds endless twists on the method, from IV pole to scythe to hydrochloric acid to the ever-reliable bullet. But the “Here, let me jam this into your skull” approach is less successful as a technique for message delivery. Diary’s constant stream of sociopolitical speechifying, most of it channeled through Deb’s voiceover, often sounds like an old crank on the corner waving a “The End Is Nigh” sign. The use of footage from real-life disasters—one shot of evacuees waiting for a bus is clearly from post-Katrina news coverage—would be more effective if it weren’t accompanied by this redundant nattering. The strongest moments are those in which Romero makes his point through narrative, like when the Winnebago crew finally meets up with a National Guard unit. Instead of helping usher the kids to safety, the Guardsmen cheerfully rob them of their supplies and send them on their way. It’s a grim vision of lawlessness and highway piracy that evokes both Katrina and Iraq without relying on a flashing “satire” signal.
It’s too bad that Diary treats its viewers more or less the way Deb and her pals treat zombies: as if we were incapable of responding to anything subtler than a direct blow to the brain. Then again, maybe we are. In a ham-fisted but genuinely scary coda that’s as pessimistic as anything he’s ever done, Romero all but states that it’s us, the living—and by extension, the audience—who may be beyond reanimation.