Mark Reviews Movies

DIARY OF THE DEAD (2008)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: George A. Romero

Cast: Michelle Morgan, Joshua Close, Shawn Roberts, Amy Ciupak Lalonde, Joe Dinicol, Scott Wentworth, Philip Riccio, Chris Violette, Tatiana Maslany

MPAA Rating:  (for strong horror violence and gore, and pervasive language)

Running Time: 1:35

Release Date: 2/15/08


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Review by Mark Dujsik

I had a feeling when George A. Romero brought back his zombie series after 20 years with Land of the Dead that the fire had burned out. What else is there to do with zombies anyway? That movie had them evolving, getting smarter, and forming a society, but while conceptually intriguing, the execution was so-so—a been-there-done-that vibe all the way. Now Romero comes back yet again to zombies with Diary of the Dead, which is, well, even more of the same and perhaps evidence that it's time for the writer/director to move on. The tone has shifted dramatically; this installment is overtly satirical, bordering on comedy. The satire, though, is blunt and blatantly stated, undermining its implications.

The style has also changed, seeing the zombie outbreak in a faux documentary captured by a group of film students. Here, like the previous entry, is a fine concept executed with disappointing ends. There are some nice thematic touches that come with the style—the dependence on technology to act as a sort of cradle in trying times, the distancing of the journalist/audience to horrors by a constant onslaught of them—but Romero's college kids have the unfortunate tendency to spew those ideas in between screams.

We first see a webcast from a local news station that depicts the police outside the scene of a murder-suicide (In a nice touch, the reporter asks the ambulance to move out of the way of their shot, a request the driver is more than happy to oblige). The bodies are rolled out, and suddenly, one victim comes back to life, then the next. Shooting ensues; people die. Our narrator to the horror is Debra (Michelle Morgan), who tells us that her boyfriend Jason (Joshua Close) started filming the events we are about to see, and she, to honor his vision, completed the project, editing it together and adding music cues where she saw necessary.

The music is because she wants us to be scared, because we should be scared by what happened. The movie within the movie is called The Death of Death, and it begins with Jason and others filming a horror movie in the woods (It involves a mummy, who Jason says can't run because it's dead and its ankles would break, an obvious riff on the (to me more frightening) concept of running zombies that has pervaded the genre). They hear reports of the dead coming back to life and decide to make a run for it.

A pair (who ends up being the smartest of the group to a certain degree) decides to isolate themselves at home, while Jason and the rest decide to take an RV and head to their respective homes. The characters are the usual types, almost not worth talking about, especially since I have forgotten about them already. There's a future starlet (Amy Ciupak Lalonde), who wonders why her character in Jason's movie has to have her dress suggestively ripped when the mummy attacks her in the woods, only to have the same happen when a zombie attacks her in the woods later on.

There's a nerd (Chris Violette), who takes over the role of the undressing, about-to-bathe vixen in the climax at the mansion/fort in which the kids find themselves. There's the initial driver of the RV (Tatiana Maslany), who is distraught over the fact that she has to run down a few zombies on the road, leading her to commit suicide over the guilt (but leaving the remaining survivors of the zombie apocalypse a useful weapon). The tone, while primarily satirical, is all over the place. Romero goes between playing with genre conventions and attempting to uncover the thematic ramifications of the concept of zombies and the way the kids deal with being involved in the end of the civilized world.

The problem is there's little in the way of segues between the two vastly distinctive tones, which leads to a feeling of a movie in the midst of an identity crisis. Where Romero succeeds is in the satire, which leads to some pretty amusing scenes. The government says it has the situation under control, and the lapdog media goes along with the story. There's a deaf, Amish man, who seems innocuous enough at first but ends up being quite the throw with a stick of dynamite. The blood and gore are, as is usually the case with Romero, effective—flying here and there with graphic, occasionally unique kill shots.

This stuff works for the most part, even if it still is been-there-done-that, but the students and their alcoholic, Army veteran professor (Scott Wentworth) are grating. It's acted stiffly, which means every time one of them decides to muse philosophical about the nature of violence, the media, or themselves (which happens way too often), it comes across stilted, trivial, and out of left field. Debra, with her constant voice-over ruminations, is perhaps the worst of these in delivery and pettiness ("We are them, and they are us," which sounds fine written in an analysis of zombie movies but forces the point on screen).

Romero seems to be summing up his thoughts on the genre that made him famous here, and it would be nice to think that, with these contemplations set down in one messy summation, Diary of the Dead would be his final words on it. There is, I learn, a sequel to this lined up, though, so it's only wishful thinking.

Copyright © 2008 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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