VIDEO: The trailer for Diary of the Dead
All genres tend to turn on themselves, becoming self-reflective, if not self-parodic. This has happened with George Romero’s fifth entry into his “Dead” franchise, which doesn’t turn the camera on its subject so much as on those who record and watch it. Since its first incarnation with Night of the Living Dead, Romero’s premise of flesh-eating zombies preying on the living has spawned countless imitators and provided a metaphor uncannily apt for every cultural twist and turn of the last four decades. Such is the case with Diary of the Dead. Romero has not grown narcissistic or solipsistic; American society has.
So, what else is new? At their best, Romero’s films don’t articulate new insights — they embody what everyone pretty much suspects to be the truth in black-comic, flesh-and-blood images and conceits. At his worst (or when his typically threadbare budgets support nothing more), he’ll talk his ideas to death with pedantic, pseudo-profound bouts of banal dialogue. It’s the difference between Night and Day of the Dead (1985).
In short, irony gives way to opacity, as in a student film that’s trying too hard to be profound. Which might well be intentional, since that’s what Diary purports to be. Jason (Josh Close) is shooting a mummy movie for his undergraduate filmmaking course somewhere in the woods of Pennsylvania, perhaps not far from the Burkittsville (Maryland) wilderness of the Blair Witch. In the middle of a botched scene, someone inevitably says, “Check out this thing on the news!” Said thing has long been familiar to the movie world: a chaotic report that the dead are rising to devour those still alive.
The movie crew respond in different ways. Ridley (Philip Riccio), who’s playing the mummy, hops into his Lexus with one of the girls and heads back to the family mansion to party. Debra (Michelle Morgan), Jason’s ex, joins up with others hoping to make their way home in a rickety Winnebago. Maxwell (Scott Wentworth), the washed-up film-studies prof, goes along for the ride, nipping at his flask and emitting sour bons mots. So does Jason, who resolves to record the disaster and show it on the Internet, in part because he wants the “truth” to survive an apparent media cover-up, but mostly because he’s excited about the prospect of getting 72,000 hits in eight minutes.
So a cross-country ride ensues, recorded on Jason’s equipment, interrupted occasionally by lurching predatory revenants but spent mostly in sophomoric arguments. “If it’s not on camera, then it’s like it never happened, right?”, Debra repeatedly whines to Jason. “We don’t stop and help, we stop and look!” chimes in someone else. Then there’s the ethical debate about killing the dead left over from previous episodes. But the nature of truth and the media dominates the discussion. As Maxwell notes on the democratization of video and the Internet, once there were only three networks and so only three sources of lies; now there are millions.
Good point, but Diary makes a more powerful argument when the prof drops his windy cynicism and picks up a bow and arrows, or when the group bump into Samuel, the Amish guy, in an uproarious mini-masterpiece about technology, communication, humanity, and death. Despite the talky patches, Romero has risen again, and his Living Dead proves a concept too prophetic to die.