There’s no debate; George A. Romero is the undisputed king of the undead. Ever since exploring the subgenre in 1968 with his classic Night of the Living Dead, no other director has been able to use zombies the way he has.
Romero’s Living Dead films have always had more depth than typical horror movies. While his films are both entertaining and scary, the real meat comes from the social commentary he is able to infuse into them.
This time around, Romero has gone the Cloverfield route and decided to shoot his film in a handheld style. Diary of the Dead follows a group of film students who are working on their own monster movie until they are interrupted by dead people who have come back to life. Everyone decides it would be best to go home and be with their families during this rather odd turn of events, so our camera-wielding heroes set off on the road. Then bad things start to happen with all the flesh-eating and whatnot.
So the story is pretty basic, which brings us to our first problem: how basic the story is. What I have listed above is practically the entire plot of the film. A runtime of 95 minutes cannot be supported by a barebones story unless it has interesting dialogue and excellent acting.
That brings us to the next problem; Diary of the Dead does not have these things. The whole idea of the film is to have a very realistic feel, which means the characters should act very realistically. But they don’t. Everyone in the film acts like someone who is trying to act natural, but they aren’t very good at it. It’s like someone doing a bad impersonation. It’s just irritating.
Deviating from the bad aspects for a moment, Diary does have admirable qualities worth mentioning. Gore-hounds will be pleased to know that the grisly blood and guts are in top form here. Not only is the makeup on the zombies excellent, but the head explosions that fans have come to expect are very satisfying. After all, the best defense against the undead is still a bullet to the brain, and Romero has not forgotten it.
The film is at its best when the zombies are an imminent threat to the students. These scenes are the most entertaining because it’s when the movie finally decides to have a little fun. The action and suspense work well by toning down on the seriousness of the material.
Romero is no newcomer to his films having a serious tone, but this time around he doesn’t have the caliber of actors to carry his message. What’s worse, the message itself that the audience is mercilessly beaten with is very unclear. The film can’t go more than three minutes without one character whining about how they shouldn’t be filming the events, while the one holding the camera proclaims his determination for the “truth.”
The idea of whether or not we’re even worth saving is an interesting one, but it isn’t explored well here. None of the themes are. I blame most of this on the lackluster cast, who have sullied a film that could have been incredible but instead is bland.
If you’re a zombie aficionado, it’s always interesting to see what Romero has up his sleeve. If you’re not, this isn’t going to win you over. While certainly not terrible, Diary is frustrating and disappointing. My advice: stick with Cloverfield.