Diary of the Dead (2007)

Diary of the Dead first published by Film4

Summary: George A. Romero’s fifth zombie film in as many decades takes on post-millennial fears, the new media, and itself.

Review: “You’re blocking our shot.”

The anonymous cameraman’s words are addressed with extraordinary insensitivity to an ambulance driver at the scene of a domestic shooting. Then the whole sequence erupts into mayhem, as two bloody victims suddenly rise from their gurneys and sink their teeth into an emergency worker and a hapless TV reporter – while a cool female voice-over reveals that the footage being watched was later secretly uploaded by the cameraman as “his way of telling the truth”. 

This opening sequence establishes all the principal concerns of George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead. Sure, it is another in his groundbreaking cycle of zombie films (although not so much a sequel as a return to the initial outbreak, only this time set in the noughties) – but just as Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1979), Day of the Dead (1985) and Land of the Dead (2005) all used their gory disaster scenarios to comment on sociopolitical issues of the day, so here Romero turns his cameras on the media itself, in the age of personal video, YouTube and reality television. 

The voice-over at the beginning belongs to Debra (Michelle Morgan), girlfriend to film student and aspiring documentary maker Jason Creed (Josh Close), who is in the woods with friends shooting a Romero-style low-budget horror movie “with a thread of underlying social satire” when the first confused news reports come in about attacks from the dead. Jason sets off with Debra, his small student cast and crew, and dipsomaniac Professor Maxwell (Scott Wentworth), on a Winnebago road-trip through an America that has succumbed almost overnight to extreme societal breakdown. While Debra just wants to get home to her family on the other side of Pennsylvania, Jason sees opportunity, feeling both a responsibility and a compulsion to film everything that they encounter along the way, and to place the edited results on the internet for any other survivors to see. Except that when you are confronted with something that was once a fellow human, it is not always so easy to shoot…

In Diary of the Dead, it is the ethics of reportage filmwork, from callous intrusion and journalistic egoism to public service and the preservation of truth, whose entrails are being most closely inspected. Romero maintains a steady ambivalence to the new media, lugubriously reflecting, like old Professor Maxwell, on the world in which he now finds himself, while at the same time embracing digital technology and postmodern irony with the sort of hungry gusto that one might find surprising from a director in his late sixties. This ambivalence, this downbeat but driven sense of inquisitiveness about the post-millennial state of man, is what gives Diary of the Dead its tension – aside, of course, from the regular encroachments by scythe-wielding deaf-mute Amish farmers, accidental black power activists, thuggish national guardsmen, and hordes of the ravenous undead. 

Romero’s influence on the whole horror genre is beyond question, but one might have imagined that his own best years were long behind him, with his last film, the studio-controlled Land of the Dead, being by his own admission a “Thunderdome” that was “too big and unruly”. Diary of the Dead, however, sees the writer/director well and truly back from the dead, and returning to his independent roots, with a small, character-based production that is intelligent, bleak, and at times jarringly funny.

Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and The Blair Witch Project (1999) may have set the ball rolling, but it was the apocalyptic terrors of 11th September 2001, largely recorded live by amateurs at the scene, that made point-of-view reportage the vehicle of choice for many of today’s horror films. Like The Zombie Diaries (2006), [REC] (2007) and Cloverfield (2008), Diary of the Dead presents its frightening events as faux documentary – but when Debra (and Romero himself) intercut the footage shot by Jason and his friends with webcasts, security camera tapes and other ‘found materials’, they are not just exploiting post-9/11 anxieties and current trends in the media, but also explicitly commenting on them, making this a film that is, in its way, as vitally subversive as Night of the Living Dead ever was way back in the era of Vietnam, the civil rights movement and the emergent youth culture. And as always with Romero, it is the living who are the real monsters. 

Verdict: In Romero’s latest zombie film, as amateur reportage collides with a zombie apocalypse, the medium is part of the message.

© Anton Bitel