In George A. Romero's seminal 1969 low budget feature, "Night of the Living Dead", the main protagonists, reeling from the confusion and chaos that begins to unfold around them as the dead rise up and start to feed on the living, barricade themselves inside a remote farm house and huddle around a TV set for news of what is happening; and to find out what they should do and where they should go. The film's sequel, "Dawn of the Dead", starts by taking us inside a television studio a few weeks after the disaster, when the hordes of shambling dead are taking over. It turns out that network bigwigs are insisting that the news team continue to run out-of-date information across the bottom of the screen because they will lose viewers to other rival news channels if they aren't seen to be providing a service — even though that "service" is now completely irrelevant! Here, the conduit of information has become a vehicle for keeping the public calm as civilisation goes to the wall. "Diary of the Dead", Romero's fifth entry in his zombie series and his follow up to the big budget "epic "Land of the Dead", marks a return to these concerns with the media and its workings, and how it might handle such a major catastrophe. This time though, it is a theme that takes centre stage. In an age where the reporting of news has broadened out and become a decentralised activity, a heterogeneous chatter of competing voices filling the blog-o-sphere with a million tribal viewpoints; where the images that accompany these "reports" are often shot by the public on their cell-phones and uploaded to YouTube for general consumption — would we have an any more truthful representation of events than the traditional centralised hub of information can offer, constantly open as it is to manipulation by the authorities — or would we be left with a confused babble of mutually incompatible voices, each with its own prejudices, broadcasting out across the electronic wilderness?
This time out Romero's protagonists are film students, making their own horror flick out in the wilds of Pittsburgh - just as he once did forty odd years ago! The film wipes the slate clean regarding the zombie mythology the director had already built up over the course of the previous four films. It takes us right back to the first night, when the dead are just beginning to rise and news reports are just starting to come in over radio and on the TV ... But now, also over the internet. For the action is now taking place in contemporary times. Unlike Romero all those years ago, Jason Creed (Joshua Close) the filmmaker inside the film, is shooting his low budget Mummy film on Digital Video rather than the 16 mm film "Night of the Living Dead" would have been made with. When the zombie reports start flooding in, Creed realises that he is ideally placed to document the phenomena and persuades his film crew to help him to make a film of the events that befall them as they travel cross country in their winebago to be with their families as civilisation crumbles. The film we are actually watching, then, purports to be that documentary, which has been completed by Creed's film student girlfriend and travelling companion, Debra Moynihan (Michelle Morgan), who provides a jaundiced voice-over alerting us tot he fact that Creed himself (who, for the most part remains mostly a voice behind the camera) obviously doesn't survive long enough to see his beloved film project to fruition.
The "mocu-mentary" style of the film has become quite common recently, especially since it follows on so recently from the high profile "Cloverfield". It represents a radically different style of film making for Romero, who usually enjoys a freedom in the editing room engendered by being able to shoot lots of coverage, enabling him to control the flow and pace of the film and to change his mind in post production. Here, the very nature of the project restricts him to long takes, often with a single camera (the protagonists do find a second camera a third of the way into the film, enabling the director to alternate from two different viewpoints), thus recapturing, in modern form, the very slice-of-life documentary feel of the original.
While "Cloverfield" strove to imitate the shaky, essentially undramatic form of lost video footage (as per "Blair Witch Project"), "Diary of the Dead" takes a slightly different tack: as the characters stumble into a succession of threatening situations — menaced by the returning dead (who have a habit of shambling out of darkened passages and doorways when one least expects it) and by various military groups who have realised the situation is unsalvageable and have taken to a modern form of highway robbery — the video record of events plays out much like a conventional film, Romero's conceit being that the film-making students, Creed, and Moynihan after him, have used all the tricks of the horror genre to make their YouTube movie chronicle of their journey as compelling as possible. They fill each dramatic moment, whether it be one of their number succumbing to suicide, getting eaten by a zombie or becoming one of the walking dead themselves, with shock music stings at appropriate moments, or creepy music to manipulate the viewer's expectations. They have essentially turned real life — their lives! — into a schlock horror flick.
At one point we are explicitly reminded of the artifice being employed by the protagonists in the making of their movie when we see, via the second camera, Creed uploading his footage and making various editing decisions based on dramatic effect rather than truthful reportage. This reflexivity and the point it makes about the elusiveness of capturing truth on film unmediated, does mean, of course, that Romero is actually still making a rather traditional film despite the low budget trappings! The drawback is that the film does look rather like a million-and-one other cheaply made Digital Video zombie movies — at least on the surface. The difference is that Romero has some excellent zombie effects available to him (both practical appliances and digital effects) of a much higher standard than your usual video shot film. Although the characters are all annoying film geeks, much younger and much "hipper" than the usual Romero protagonists, there is at least some attempt to endow them with more depth and with deeply conflicted natures about their actions; and the actors (who often have to play out long dramatic scenes without cuts) do a pretty good job of giving believable dramatic performances. Although the action is on a much smaller scale than the usual modern day gore-drenched multiplex horror flicks, Romero manages to recreate that threatening uneasiness of the original film on many occasions. The horror comes out of the dreadful emotion of the stark situations the characters encounter rather than visceral, bloody effects (not that the film is devoid of these, but inevitably the restrictions of this documentary imitation means that there are limits to what can be achieved); it's a film for hard core fans rather than the broader horror community and it clearly suits Romero's creative spirit and his need for control better than the rather anonymous action-based "Land of the Dead". There is an uncharacteristic tendency for Romero's script to over egg the emerging media angle though, without really having anything all that original or incisive to say about it. Jason Creed's disassociation from reality ("Nothing is really real unless it's captured on film, is it!" taunts his girlfriend, at one point) is hardly a great revelation or an original character point: in fact, it pretty much comes with the territory in many a low budget docu-flick of this nature. The film does see Romero's film making style re-energised and revitalised after the studio-backed conventionality of the previous film in the series, and that bodes well for future entries in his retooled vision of zombie apocalypse.
Optimum Releasing have come up with a jam-packed double disc set which feature all the "making of" bell & whistles one could hope for: a director's commentary, featurettes covering interviews with cast and crew, features on make-up, digital effects etc. plus several insightful interviews with Romero himself (some of them conducted at various festivals). The second dic also has a major 1 hour 20 minute documentary overview of Romero's career, focusing on the making of "Night of the Living Dead". An excellent package for an enjoyable, small-scale horror flick that may not be doing anything radically new in the genre but which does provide a more satisfying experience for Romero fans than they've encountered for some years.