DIARY OF THE DEAD (2007, directed by George Romero, 95 minutes, U.S./Canada)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
Before they can declare the New Wave of zombie films officially dead (no surprise they keep coming, they’re zombies after all) George Romero has decided to shamble in for another go around. With his fifth Dead film since his 1968 genre-sprouting classic Night of the Living Dead, Romero has scaled back his ambitions in order to maintain a control over production he hasn’t had since 1978’s Dawn of the Dead. With its limited budget, Romero has made Diary of the Dead more of a joy ride than a State of the Zombie Nation yet just like John Ford loading them into a stagecoach and sending them West, it’s surprising how much resonance The Master can continue to wring from his innards-munching premise.
Divorce led the filmmaker to leave his longtime location in Pittsburgh and make this installment in his new home of Toronto. Throwing continuity to the wind, he has started the series anew as well, with Diary chronicling the late night motor home ride of a group of college film students and their bourbon-soaked professor at the plague’s genesis. Romero has become a lot more specific in the series’ satiric intent and Diary pauses, sometimes awkwardly, to underline the idea that media and technology can both bring us the world and leave us numb to its provocations. The fact that he tries to pass the film off as a Blair Witch-style faux-document is the least successful element of this very busy ninety-five minutes. Where his last outing, 2005’s Land of the Dead tried to map out the landscape of this new zombie-driven society, Diary goes back to the roots of the series, which has always been about putting a bunch of game-but-not-seasoned actors together in a tight space so they could bicker like the old Italian family in which Romero presumably grew up with.
We meet the cast as they are arguing on the set of a bad student mummy film in the woods. When the reality of the zombie plague comes a-eating their way, the crew escape into a friend’s motorhome headed ultimately towards a supposed safe house in the Philly suburbs. Front and center are Jason (Joshua Close), a student who won’t put down the camera feeling he has found his documentary moment and his perpetually perturbed girlfriend Debra (Michelle Morgan), who is concerned her boyfriend is a little too separated from the reality of the event.
Romero finds a few new ways to shut off his zombies (acid to the brain!) yet what really seems to excite the director is the chance to work with a young cast in close quarters with no major studio looking over his shoulder. The actors have a ball as they either get tough or die and Romero’s “Road Trip” script gives them a number of amusing little riffs for them to work with, including a hysterical trip to Amish country, where the scythe-wielding population apparently deal with zombies in a very matter-of-fact manner.
It’s a case of bad timing that the recent film Cloverdale presents a more ambitious take on many of the film’s new media ideas. Still, if Woody Allen can spend the majority of his career landlocked with the citizens of the Upper West Side there’s no reason Romero’s can’t filter all his ideas on our modern world through the brains of the undead.