Reviewed by Uncle Creepy
Starring Joshua Close, Michelle Morgan, Shawn Roberts, Amy Ciupak Lalonde, Scott Wentworth
Directed by George A. Romero
Distributed by Dimension Extreme
“Because of the obvious threat to untold numbers of citizens due to the crisis that is even now developing, this radio station will remain on the air day and night. This station and hundreds of other radio and TV stations throughout this part of the country are pooling their resources through an emergency network hook-up to keep you informed of all developments. At this hour, we repeat, these are the facts as we know them. There is an epidemic of mass murder being committed by a virtual army of unidentified assassins. The murders are taking place in villages and cities, in rural homes and suburbs with no apparent pattern nor reason for the slayings. It seems to be a sudden general explosion of mass homicide. We have some descriptions of the assassins. Eyewitnesses say they are ordinary-looking people. Some say they appear to be in a kind of trance. Others describe them as being misshapen monsters. At this point, there’s no really authentic way for us to say who or what to look for and guard yourself against. Reaction of law enforcement officials is one of complete bewilderment at this hour. Police and sheriff’s deputies and emergency ambulances are literally deluded with calls for help. The scene can be best described as mayhem. The mayors of Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Miami, along with the governments of several Eastern and Midwestern states, indicated that the National Guard may be mobilized at any moment, but that has not happened as yet. The main advice news reporters have been able to get from official sources is to tell private citizens to stay inside their homes behind locked doors. Do not venture outside for any reason until the nature of this crisis has been determined and until we can advise what course of action to take. Keep listening to radio and TV for special instructions as this crisis develops further.”
Those words when I first heard them through my TV when I was three years old changed my entire life. I thought the situation to be real. In fact, they lead to my very first spanking. (Thanks, George!) Terrifying is the only word that I can think of to sum up the notion that the dead were returning to life and devouring the living. These weren’t monsters; they didn’t have fangs or anything like that. The people committing these atrocities were your friends. Your neighbors. Your family. Could you put them down if push came to shove?
What developed from the 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead (review here) was a series of films that have become some of the most important in not only our genre, but any genre. After Dawn, Day, and Land director George A. Romero has decided to flip the switch on the mythos that he created. To hit reset and start back at square one. The result — Diary of the Dead, a film like no other in the series because the story is told cinéma-vérité style through the cameras of the characters. In this world of bloggers and YouTube, privacy as we know it has ceased to exist. The time couldn’t be more right to head the series in such a bold new direction.
Jason Creed (Close) and his friends were busy shooting his student film The Death of Death when the news of the dead beginning to rise started coming over the radio. People were panicking. Dying. The shaken students could only think of one thing: to collect themselves and head home. At least most of them felt that way. Jason thought the right thing to do was to stay out in the thick of it and shoot everything he sees, hoping that whoever survives this anarchy could find his film and use it as a tool of survival. This was an important happening that needed to be documented. Of course his crew, and more importantly his girlfriend, Debra (Morgan), felt differently, but in the end Jason’s passion, his obsession, had consumed them as well.
Essentially Diary of the Dead is Jason’s movie, edited together with music by his friends to tell his tale. This isn’t your usual cinéma-vérité type telling riddled with stomach churning shakey-cam theatrics. Everything is very cinematic, and that makes for a bit of an odd experience. As raw as the footage is, it’s presented with a clear narrative. In fact, dare I say it, this is Romero’s most polarizing film amidst his fanbase. Some people love it, and some hate it. Some call it heavy-handed, and some call it satirical. Me? Upon first viewing I thought it was good but not great. I fell somewhere in the middle. But after watching it twice more, I must admit the experience now floors me.
Romero has crafted a film that perfectly captures what’s going on in this decade while at the same time mirroring the type of unrest that was rife within our country in the Sixties. The message presented here reminds us that no matter how much things change technologically, no matter how far we think that we’ve come, our societal bullshit stays very much the same. We’re still our own worst enemy and probably will be until the whole planet goes up in flames. To further blur the Dead timeline, there’s even a point in the film in which we hear a bit the old Night broadcast quoted above playing through a TV in the background in one of Diary‘s best scenes. This touch really brings things full circle as we can easily imagine Ben and Cooper arguing about going down into the cellar a few towns away while Jason and his crew bicker about whether or not they should stop filming. It’s always about us.
Diary escapes the Hollywood polish that ironically tarnished Land of the Dead and takes viewers back to the gritty indie feel of his original trilogy, and Romero seems to be having a blast doing so. There are scenes in which you could tell George was just having some fun. He addresses the whole running zombie vs. shambling zombie debate flawlessly and offers up a couple of humorous bits that are as brilliant and zany as the out-of-nowhere Dawn pie fight. In the end though, despite their messages, scares, and fun, these movies have to give the audience more than its fair share of undead mayhem, and Diary delivers in that area tenfold. Even after forty years Romero still has some gags up his sleeve that are fresh and insanely violent. Think you’ve seen every way to dispatch a zombie? Think again! As for the dead themselves? Holy shit, do they look dead. As a fan I couldn’t have been more pleased.
Speaking of pleased, after you watch the movie, there’s another full-length feature just waiting for you to sink your teeth into: the eighty-minute documentary For the Record: The Making-of Diary of the Dead by Michael Felsher’s Red Shirt Pictures. Felsher and company have set the bar in terms of supplemental excellence, and this is yet another sterling example of his passion for the material and quality end result. Broken down into five parts that can be watched separately, For the Record does an amazing job of covering every aspect of making Diary. Fans looking to get right into the meat of the film should thoroughly enjoy watching the near half hour devoted to the incredible blending of physical and visual effects, while others looking for more traditional making-of stuff like cast and crew interviews will also have some truly choice cuts to sift through. Bottom line? There’s something for everyone here, but the fun doesn’t stop there as there’s lots more gore-soaked goodness to sift through.
First and foremost there’s the Character Confessionals featurette(s). Clocking in at about twenty minutes combined, we get to spend time with four of the film’s actors who remain in character while sharing their private feelings with the camera as per Jason’s request. Some break down, some explode, and some speak to their loved ones while wrestling with whether or not to just say goodbye. All are nothing short of riveting. This, my friends, is really, really good stuff. You can then check out the MySpace short film contest entries (watch them here), and from there dig on two more MySpace related brief featurettes — The First Week and The Roots. Rather than me telling you about these goodies, you can head on over to the Official Diary of the Dead MySpace page and watch them yourself along with some other cool stuff.
Next up we have another short featurette called Familiar Voices. Here we have five minutes of unedited voiceovers that were used in Diary as newscasts by some well known genre celebs. Included are Simon Pegg, Guillermo del Toro, and Stephen King. There were others, too, and if you’re looking to find out who else was involved, this is the perfect time to watch the movie again with the commentary on! Romero, director of photography Adam Swica, and editor Michael Doherty are all on hand to share stories, give away secrets, and of course just plain shoot the shit while the movie plays in the background. The results are pretty damned entertaining. There’s never a moment of dead air, and everyone seems thrilled to be doing this despite recording it in two different countries at the same time. Technology, I tell ya! See, man? This is the kind of stuff George is talking about!
Diary of the Dead is a movie that gets better with repeated viewings, and believe me, you’re going to need them, too, as there’s a hell of lot to take in all at once. Romero is still on top of his game, and if you need proof, look no further than the final shot in this film. I don’t think I’ve ever been as haunted by one single image in my entire life. True, George may be as subtle as a brick to the face at times, but that’s why we love him, no? I’ve no clue what direction the master is set to take us in next, but I’m really looking forward to that trip, man. Bravo.
4 1/2 out of 5
5 out of 5
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