George A. Romero has been synonymous with the horror genre since the ground-breaking Night of the Living Dead (1968), his low-budget, independently made masterpiece which introduced a new, relentless strain of zombie and whipped up a storm for its explicit onscreen violence and wry observations of American society. The smashing sequel Dawn of the Dead, with its ruminations on consumerism, further proved Romero to be an astute and innovative director; while the apocalyptic Day of the Dead was a rewarding finale to the trilogy, ensuring his status as the undisputed king of the zombie film.
Romero returned to the genre in 2005 with Land of the Dead, a schlocky B-movie gore fest in which cerebrally evolved zombies join forces and dine on the brains of their capitalist fat cat oppressors. Now the director brings his unique brand of the undead back to the screen with Diary of the Dead. Despite being firmly set in the twenty-first century, the era of MySpace, YouTube, media saturation and 24-hour surveillance society, Diary is something of a return to Romero’s roots: independently funded and stripped back to basics, the film attempts to recreate the atmosphere of terror and anxiety that made Night of the Living Dead so alarming.
Diary opens as a group of film students, shooting a horror movie in the woods, receive disturbing news reports that the dead are coming back to life and feasting on the flesh of the living. As they struggle to make it home in a rusting Winnebago, cameraman Jason obsessively records the details of their journey, documenting each horrific and deadly encounter along the way, piecing together a candid portrait of chaos and bloodshed. This recording is the film we see, narrated by his girlfriend Debra, who offers a chilling indictment of a world in the grip of its own undoing.
This first person, shaky-cam style gives Diary a realistic edge of tense urgency, and lends itself to some darkly comic moments. Yet it also feels somewhat derivative, particularly since the technique became commonplace in the wake of The Blair Witch Project. It is through Debra’s narration that Romero comments on the omnipotence of mass media and the way it dictates our lives, but this message becomes trite and confusing in its constant reiteration, undermining the potential of the image to evoke and suggest, which in part is what made his original trilogy so compelling. However, the film is not without some inimitable Romero characteristics: the amiable Amish chap whose preferred method of zombie management is dynamite; the tough black rebel group who politicise their fight for survival; and I don’t recall ever having witnessed a zombie dispatched by a bottle of Hydrochloric acid.
After forty years Romero’s incisive wit and inventiveness are still intact, making Diary of the Dead an enjoyable and often gripping film and a small beacon of hope in a genre that’s becoming increasingly dominated by turgid remakes and tedious ‘torture-porn’ sequels. However, it lacks the raw energy, insight and rebelliousness of his earlier films, and as such is not quite the return to form that a hungry horror fan might crave. It’s unlikely Romero will be throwing in his crown quite yet; let’s just hope he gives it a good polish before he does.