Diary of the Dead (2008)
If there's one thing Romero is known for, it's having a message in his films. Night of the Living Dead said things about racism, Dawn of the Dead, materialism, and so on. There's nothing wrong with having a message in your film; in fact, many zombie films do. It's just that Romero seems to have gotten it into his head that getting the message across is the most important thing, so in Diary of the Dead he beats us over the head with it. The message? There's more than one, actually. We're all a bunch of sick voyeurs who don't believe anything unless it's on camera, but at the same time, we're now so used to violent images and stories in the media that we no longer react to anything horrible. The camera comes between us and reality; it's our connection to the world, but at the same time makes everything seem like a movie. After seeing a video online about the latest suicide bombing in Baghdad, we can surf to the next video and put it out of our minds.
Romero has a point, but Diary lacks the subtlety of his earlier films. The movie is shown mostly as a series of video clips recorded by Jason (Joshua Close), a film student, during a worldwide zombie outbreak. Jason is obsessed with recording it all and uploading it to the web, despite ever-present danger and downright hostility from his friends and girlfriend, Debra (Michelle Morgan). Debra repeatedly mocks his obsession angrily, saying "It didn't happen unless it was on camera, right?" The thing is, the film's premise doesn't work.
I'd recently watched Cloverfield, which has the same premise. A young man called Hud is filming a going-away party when a monster attacks New York. In the ensuing chaos, he keeps the camera rolling, carrying it through the adventure. I think it works there because Hud is mostly a passive observer. His friends barely seem to acknowledge him most of the time, and it's easier for the viewer to just become Hud, seeing what he sees through the lens. In Diary, Jason is constantly talking to his friends as if he were trying to direct a movie, and they're constantly telling him to put the damn camera down. At one point he insists on asking them inane questions, like their names and where they're from, when nobody is really in a talking mood. We don't like Jason, and therefore can't identify with him, and it brings us out of the picture.
This distancing effect was compounded by a horrible script. Romero's efforts to make the actors seem natural, as if they were actually caught on camera and not performing, makes them all the more stilted. There's one character, an alcoholic film professor (Scott Wentworth), who talks like he's in a really bad Elizabethan period piece. I won't say Shakespearean piece, since that would be insulting to Shakespeare, but he rambles in flowery prose more appropriate to those kinds of plays. It could be that he was really meant as a character to be out of place like that, but the other actors take his dialog with a straight face, as if it's perfectly normal, so it doesn't ring true. Other characters have similar issues. The dialog seems forced, scenarios seem contrived, and events seem unrealistic.
The movie does have some redeeming qualities. The zombie makeup and effects are great, and there are a few scenes that I wish had been in a better movie. A deaf Amish farmer makes a brief appearance, and while he was probably the most unrealistic character in the movie, he was so over the top that he was fun to watch, and I wish there had been more of him. Of course, if he had been in a better movie, he would have brought it down, so maybe it worked out for the best, for him at least.
Overall, I was disappointed in Romero's latest effort. I read that after making Land of the Dead, he wanted to return to indie film so he could create without interference. It seemed that Land of the Dead had lost much of what made Romero great, but had been replaced by big-budget popcorn glitz. Diary unfortunately loses the glitz as well.