Movie Review: Diary of the Dead
By Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
Call it OCVD - obsessive-compulsive video disorder, the insatiable itch to visually document terrible, unfathomable events as they unfold. This syndrome kept "Cloverfield" on the run, but in many ways it's more provocatively handled in "George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead," which is funny and sad and rather sweet as zombie pictures go. No blockbuster freight saddles the latest from the 68-year-old Romero, whose "Night of the Living Dead" 40 years ago forever changed the face, the bones and the preoccupations of horror. Shooting on the quick-and-dirty, he ponders what it means to live our lives as perpetual amateur filmmakers.
When the zombies rise again, will we be able to put down our cell-phone cameras, our laptops and our iPhones long enough to realize what's happening? Pointedly, in Romero's latest, one of the survivors utters the line "Take this. It's too easy to use." He refers not to a gun, but to a video camera.
"Diary of the Dead" begins with newscasters filming a crime scene that turns into our bloody reintroduction to Romero's beloved, slow-moving but determined zombies. Soon it segues into a scene of Pittsburgh college students making a no-budget mummy movie in the woods, at night. Director Jason (Josh Close) hears reports of the undead. Then they receive first-hand evidence. With his cronies, including girlfriend Debra (Michelle Morgan), the students and their alcoholic film instructor (Scott Wentworth, intoning portents of doom like there's no tomorrow) head off in a Winnebago to home, or what's left of it. All the while Jason refuses to put down the camera. His footage becomes its own "making of" feature. He calls it "The Death of Death."
As Romero moves from makeshift film set to an abandoned hospital to an enclave of African-American survivors armed to the teeth (a nod to the original '68 film's racial politics), "Diary of the Dead" develops into a canny elegy for an entire genre. The jokes are touchingly self-aware. "How many times do I have to tell you?" Jason exhorts one of his young actors early on, on the mummy movie set. "Corpses don't run fast!" It's as if Romero were speaking directly to the makers of "28 Days Later" and "28 Weeks Later."
The film sputters a bit near the end, and Romero cannot make a virtue out of the survivors' confinement in a mansion tricked up with a fearsome series of surveillance cameras. But the way "Diary of the Dead" chooses to deliver its gore, you know you're in the hands of a grown-up uninterested in the excesses of the "Saw" or "Hostel" pictures. I mean, there's gore, sure, and flesh gets eaten. But the way Romero shoots and cuts the shot of a girl's reunion with her parents, one dead, one undead, it's played for keeps - the right kind of gross, with a touch of mournful gravity.
MPAA rating: R (for strong horror violence and gore, and pervasive language).
Running time: 1:35
Starring: Josh Close (Jason); Michelle Morgan (Debra); Shawn Roberts (Tony); Scott Wentworth (Maxwell).
Written and directed by George A. Romero; photographed by Adam Swica; edited by Michael Doherty; music by Norman Orenstein; production design by Rupert Lazarus; produced by Peter Grunwald, Art Spigel, Sam Englebardt and Ara Katz. A Weinstein Company release.