October Horrorshow: Diary of the Dead

The October Horrorshow rolls on here at Missile Test, when we devote the entire month of October to watching and reviewing horror films. The good, the bad, and the putrid all have a viewing. With this review we wrap up the run of zombie films made by George A. Romero. Sure, we’ve been reviewing them out of order, but it doesn’t really matter.

Diary of the Dead, from 2007, is Romero’s followup to Land of the Dead. For whatever reason, Romero regressed when it came to his budget with this film. Land of the Dead wasn’t exactly a blockbuster production, but it did recoup its $15 million budget three times over, yet Diary of the Dead was made with the paltry amount of $2 million. A cut in resources like this isn’t normally made by choice, but Romero did decide to make this an experimental film of sorts, so maybe it was on purpose.

Anyway, Diary of the Dead takes place on the eve of the zombie outbreak that began during Romero’s first zombie flick, Night of the Living Dead. With each of his Dead films, Romero has played fast and loose with the real world timeline when it comes to the zombie apocalypse, which is why the outbreak in his films occurs in the 1960s, ’70s, and 2000s. In that way, his story of the outbreak is timeless. Despite the intervening years between releases, all films take place within the same continuity. That’s only a flaw if one lets it be so.

Once again telling the story of a small group of characters trying to survive among the hordes, this story turns the tables a bit. Instead of the film being presented as a god’s eye view of events, the footage in Diary is recorded by the characters themselves, a fictional found footage portrayal of the survivors’ plight. Adding to its 21st century bona fides, in the film the footage is being uploaded to the internet by the characters as a record of what they have seen and confronted as they travel throughout Pennsylvania trying to find a safe haven.

This would have been a groundbreaking development in film if only Romero had made Diary of the Dead a few years earlier. In the year 2007, it’s just hopping on the bandwagon, a cardinal sin in internet innovation. Hopefully the lens of time will erase such minutiae of place in the future, but right now, it feels forced. This does mean that the only way to watch the film is to hop off the high horse and judge Diary of the Dead on its merits as a storytelling vehicle, rather than as a misguided attempt to plug into the millennial generation.

The first thing one notices is that unlike the characters which fill the previous films, none of the protagonists of Diary are memorable as individuals. There’s no Ben, no Washington, no Captain Rhodes, no Cholo to root for or against. The characters in Diary are strictly generic, the types of everyman 20-something pretty faces that populate so much bad horror, and one drunken middle-aged college professor. As such, it becomes hard for the viewer to become invested in the fates of the characters. But, the film does overcome this character-by-committee casting, to a certain extent. It is engaging to watch these people move, fight, move some more, find sanctuary, watch it all fall apart, and then begin all over again.

Romero took risks with Diary of the Dead, far more than he did with Land of the Dead. While the payoff did not reach the heights he intended, Diary of the Dead is a taut drama when it comes to the story. As far as the found footage style is concerned, Romero does succeed in making it integral to the film. All one needs to do to see this is to picture Diary filmed conventionally. Had he done so, Diary would provoke zero conversation as a zombie film. So while this film has paramount flaws, and is, oh my, a few years behind the times, it is a good watch.

Worth noting, Romero introduced two separate groups of survivors which the main cast encounter on their journey. One group, a wayward unit of National Guardsmen, became the basis for the followup to Diary, Survival of the Dead. The other group was mainly composed of African-Americans, horrified at the turn of events but embracing the roll of protecting their own that they have been thrust into. This latter group comprised Romero’s regular addition of racial commentary in his zombie films. This group would have also made a better sequel, I think. Maybe Romero had plans to make a film featuring this group, but who knows if this is even possible after the poor showing Survival of the Dead had.

Night of the Living Dead had a very strong message when it came to race. With each succeeding film, that message has been watered down until it’s little more than boilerplate, but in Diary, these characters were more dynamic than the main cast. If it is possible, the next Dead installment should feature these characters that appeared only so briefly in Diary of the Dead.