As a rabid Undeadhead, I can’t wait for the next zombie movie to come out. If you have followed some of my reviews on RevolutionSF, you know how much I love the genre. Night of the Living Dead, 28 Days Later, and Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead stand out as three of my favorite movies of all time.
Imagine my absolute glee (cue giggling girl sounds) when I heard George Romero was releasing Diary of the Dead as an independent film.
Several factors conspired to make this a good experience for me. I acquired a free pass for the movie at ACE, the Atlanta Comics Expo. Second, the movie played at the Plaza Theater here in Atlanta. The Plaza is a classic theater, one of the oldest in the city, and stands proudly as Atlanta’s only “independent theater”. (What does that mean anymore?)
The Plaza hosts the Spook Show, a monthly creature feature hosted by Atlanta’s homegrown Professor Morte. I had the pleasure of meeting him at ACE.
To top off the experience, the Spook Show staff was doing zombie makeup for all takers. While I was tempted, I resisted. After all, I had to work the next day, and the thought of showing up at work with any leftover makeup not removed by my morning shower was enough to leave me mortified to the point where I just couldn’t risk it. I already have a nerdy enough reputation at my nine-to-five that I need to avoid unnecessary embarrassment at any cost.
So as I sat down in the theater, surrounded by the made-up undead, I couldn’t help feel a rare thrill, bringing together one of my favorite hobbies, the perfect location, and a great crowd with whom to enjoy the movie.
And the movie delivered. In spades.
Now, I have to be very careful not to give away spoilers. This is a great movie, and I would hate myself if I spoiled it for anyone.
The narrative starts with students filming a B-grade horror movie in the woods near George Romero’s favorite Zombie Central, Pittsburgh, PA. (What is it with that man and Pittsburgh?) Their film experiment is interruptedby reports of a catastrophic event crushing the world outside, away from their remote film set. The dead have started acting less dead, "dead-ish," really, and eating anyone they can get their necrotic hands on.
The college students stop their filming, load up the Winnebago, and make a beeline for home, hoping to reconnect with their families in this hour of crisis.
This is a good time to give props to George Romero for his striking attention to detail. In this case, I the equipment in the Winnebago was labeled “FILM SCHOOL”, just so the viewer would know exactly why this phat gear would actually be inside an RV full of college students. In truth, it’s this attention to detail that gives the movie some of its credibility.
After all, when you start with the premise that the dead are rising up and attacking the living as lunch or a quick snack, you need every bit of credibility you can get.
As the road trip unfolds, the students encounter ever direr and ever gorier situations. They are tested to their limits. Some rise to their personal challenges and some don’t. Some survive and some don’t. As their voyage of self discovery continues, they are forced to face their own personal demons and rise to the best they have to offer.
Here is where this movie differs from some of Romero’s previous offerings: this movie actually gives you hope.
Not wanting to spoil anything, I’ll spare you the details of who survives and who doesn’t. I will say, however, that the movie has more heart and more honest emotion than so much other zombie genre and even non-genre film has to offer.
I confess I got so caught up in the movie that I found myself genuinely moved by some of the film’s more touching scenes. OK, crying. Are you happy now?
Due in large part to the acting skills of the cast, I found myself transported from my own mundane existence into Romero’s. It is a credit to George Romero’s world-making skills that I was able to distance myself from the everyday and enter someone else’s nightmare, if only for and hour and a half.
Romero’s knack for social commentary is put to very effective use in Diary as well. With the insane popularity of Internet video sites, where ordinary people "put it out there" for the world’s consumption, I am left wondering what the greater purpose is of a world where anyone can be a celebrity, if even for fifteen minutes.
What is most striking, however, is how the film-within-a-film shows the power of the Internet, and film really, to inform as well as to appeal to our most human needs. In this case, it is the need to make a difference, More specifically, the film serves as a commentary about the artist’s overwhelming need to use his or her craft to leave a mark on the world.
In his late sixties, George Romero has slyly told us that he still has something to say.
Don’t let the tone of this review fool you; Diary of the Dead is superbly fun. When it isn’t pummeling the audience with horror movie in-jokes, it’s serving up a veritable smorgasbord of uncannily beautiful gore and willies-inducing zombie kills worthy of the best of the best. And, true to its horror pedigree, it delivers horrors both seen and implied. What you don’t see is just as effective as what you do.
The use of first person perspective, necessitated by the structure of the movie as a film student’s personal narrative, gives maximum effect to the voice of the narrator.
The footage in this movie comes ostensibly from a myriad of sources, including not only the college student’s camera, but also security cameras and raw news footage (filmed with earnest authenticity).
But it’s when the viewer, as the eye behind the camera, sees the world that the scope of the movie’s horror sinks in. The use of jittery-cam, with its vomit-inducing cuts and fades, places the audience completely within the action.
So, to recap: The movie has a message. It's big fun. It has heart. Go see it already!