Review: Diary of the Dead (2007)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #738

Number of Views: Two
Release Date: September 8, 2007
Sub-Genre: Zombie/Found Footage
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $2,000,000
Box Office: $5,300,000
Running Time: 92 minutes
Director: George A. Romero
Producers: George A. Romero, Peter Grunwald, Sam Englebardt, Artur Spigel, Dan Fireman, John Harrison, Ara Katz
Screenplay: George A. Romero
Special Effects: Greg Nicotero, Chris Bridges, Kyle Glencross, Neil Morrill, Mark Ahee
Visual Effects: Jeff Campbell, Colin Davies
Cinematography: Adam Swica
Score: Norman Orenstein
Editing: Michael Doherty
Studios: Artfire Films, Romero-Grunwald Productions
Distributor: The Weinstein Company Dimension Films
Stars: Michelle Morgan, Josh Close, Shawn Roberts, Amy Lalonde, Joe Dinicol, Scott Wentworth, Philip Riccio, Chris Violette, Tatiana Maslany, R .D. Reid, Megan Park, Laura DeCarteret, Todd William Schroeder, Nick Alachiotis, Alan van Sprang, Tino Monte

Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] Queens of The Stone Age “The Lost Art of Keeping A Secret”

 [2] Daft Punk “Technologic”

[3] The Captains Intangible “Any Other Way”

The following appraisal was written in June 2017, one month prior to the death of George A. Romero, and never released until now. Respectfully, it has not been changed. 

Handy things diaries. Life moves so fast and it can be nigh-on impossible remembering what you did an hour ago, let alone a year so what better way to record those findings than by keeping a personal logbook? Should we feel like we’ve got something interesting to say in later life then, chances are, we’ll consider writing our memoirs. If we do, then we have one of two choices – either we root around in our memory banks and hope that the facts haven’t become distorted over time or consult those musty old journals and get the facts directly from the most trusty source imaginable. I kept a diary once and had every intention of using it for reference at a much later date. However, someone clearly forget to read the confidentiality of information disclosure and got a great deal more than they bargained for when perusing my most intimate musings.

That person was my dear mother and she soon regretted her indiscretion. The page-a-day diary in question dated back to around the time of my eighteenth birthday and had been stored away in my parents’ dusty old attic space since I spread my wings and flew the nest for pastures new at twenty. To be honest, I’d clean forgotten about it existence and had no idea it was about to become hot topic several years down the line. Along with my aunt and three sisters, mom decided to have a little clear out and, lo-and-behold, happened across the incriminating evidence whilst spring cleaning the loft’s cobwebs. Overcome with burgeoning curiosity, she promptly ignored their advice to leave it be, and unwittingly delved into my most personal of effects.

Naturally she was appalled to find a blow-by-blow account of my first foray into the brave new world of cunnilingus and instantly demanded to know what I had to say in my defense, after taking it upon herself to destroy all evidence of its existence. Do you want to know my response? Serves you right. Moreover, what right did you have to dispose of something that didn’t belong to you? She’d been expecting me to be mortified, where instead I was disillusioned that her actions had been so underhand. Whatever I chose to share within those pages was for my eyes only and never intended to be scrutinized by parentals. I was eighteen goddamnit and was quite within my rights to take a sip from the fur-laced chalice. And I was damned if I was going to ask for pardon or take responsibility for her trauma.

Nowadays, things are so much different. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, we can now blog, vlog, weblog and even moblog to our heart’s desires and there is no longer any requirement to use a leather-bound journal for documentation. Better yet, with the worldwide web so freely accessible, the results can reach a far wider audience. Granted, that kind of defeats the whole purpose of keeping a private diary in the first place, but the world has changed considerably since I was a kid and who gives a rodent’s rectum is someone in Kazakhstan knows what I’ve been up to? If my mother could access the internet, then perhaps I’d change my tune, but until that day arrives, I’ll just carry on caring enough to share.

Besides, maybe you could do some good by placing certain critical information tidbits into the public domain. In the unlikely event of a full-blown global zombie apocalypse breaking out in my front yard, would it not be my civic duty to offer others a quick heads-up as to the particular strain of threat they are soon to be facing? Survival handbooks are all well and good but it likely won’t dawn on anyone to circulate pamphlets until way too late in the day, whereas one cunningly tagged YouTube upload later and any subscribers will be tooled up for the long night ahead. It’s a no-brainer right? So what if it goes viral overnight, masses millions of hits, and turns out to be a tidy little earner in the process. I’ll donate all proceeds to medica science if it’ll make you feel better, but right here in the now, the world needs to bloody well know.

Undisputed Godfather of the Dead, George A. Romero, never intended Diary of The Dead to be a direct sequel to any of his earlier works and, instead, proclaimed it “a rejigging of the myth” and just another piece of a far larger puzzle. Set during the same timeframe as Night of The Living Dead, it merely supplies a side story, a hands-on chronicle of how devastating the outbreak was to an entirely different set of individuals. He was well within his rights to branch out wherever he saw fit as he had nurtured this baby right from seed, through bleed, and well into breed. Social commentary was always a given with Romero’s work and this proposed a fresh angle to shoot from, using a format that a whole new generation of budding dead heads could relate to effortlessly. I’m talking, of course, about raw handheld footage.

This was a bold move bold even by his standards as it entailed adopting an entirely different approach when capturing those all-important dailies. However, it also presented a unique challenge and he’d never before shirked one of those. All four of his previous journal entries had used intimate settings to bring us in for the hug. From farmhouse, to shopping mall, through underground silo, and straight into the cozy confines of Fiddler’s Green – the common theme had been tight quarters. Diary of The Dead actually covers more square kilometres than any of its predecessors and the intimacy comes from documenting events as they unfurl in first person. With a fairly meagre $2m at his disposal, it also made rather shrewd business sense, even more so given the sheer length and breadth of this undertaking. If anyone could pull this audacious feat off, then my money would be on George. Somewhat predictably, he did precisely that.

After a short and enlightening opening broadcast from our sponsors, we catch up with a group of young film studies students from the University of Pittsburgh who are shooting a horror film along with their faculty adviser, Andrew Maxwell (Scott Wentworth). Eyes are tired, patience dwindling, and tempers beginning to fray; thus it seems like the ideal time to wind things down for the evening and call it a well-earned wrap. However, when news filters through of an apparent mass-riot complete with extensive casualties, priorities are required to change on the fly. It isn’t long before the full extent of the pandemonium becomes abundently clear, not to mention the kind of threat humanity is facing.

Quick thinking director and habitual blogger Jason (Joshua Close) takes this opportunity to document events as they happen, with his girlfriend Debra (Michelle Morgan) reluctantly providing the narration. The project will be named “The Death of Death” and, while Debra isn’t sold on his intentions, Jason insists that he’s doing a public service by telling things exactly how they are. With mass media shedding precious little light on their predicament, the only reliable source of information appears to be the Internet and it’s plain to see that, by positioning himself behind the camera, Jason feels he can detach himself from the grim reality facing them all.

Diary of The Dead then goes on to chart the dwindling group’s movements from one precarious situation to the next in their trusty RV and Romero uses every last trick of the trade he has amassed over his career to ensure we never feel secure in our surroundings.

Where previously, his protagonists have primarily been stationary, here they are mobile more often than not and safe havens are few and far between. However, just like before, it’s their inability to work together that threatens to derail this road trip and raises yet more questions over whether mankind is deserving of continuation.

By using a subjective camera approach to chronicle events precisely as they unfold, Romero bypasses gimmicky novelty and instils his picture with a genuine “this shit is really happening” urgency that serves it decidedly well. There is no shaky cam footage and motion sickness need not be a concern, thanks to his decision to focus on a group of young film students who know their way around a video camera.

The downside to this is that, aside from the wonderfully world-weary and sardonic Maxwell, they’re a slightly less memorable group than has been customary with his work until now. However, the whole ground zero is approach is fascinating and, at a slender 92 minutes, we are never in any danger of being left wanting as we are whisked from pillar to post with the kind of breathless energy that Romero can generate in his sleep.

However, where Diary of The Dead punches its weight hardest is in the way it portrays mankind as ultimately our own worst enemy. One distressing moment in particular featuring an elderly couple at the mercy of the military hits the point home by way of sledgehammer blow and is quite possibly the most pitch-black scene he has ever committed to celluloid. Period.

Meanwhile, his assault on the unreliability of mass media is unrelenting and very much to-the-point, although he peppers the film with the usual zombie-themed humor and there’s no shortage of light relief and playful self-reference throughout to help make his bitter lozenge of harsh truth a tad easier to swallow.

His departure in style supplies the freedom to tinker with the conventions of the very genre he’d argue doggedly that he invented and, while Diary of The Dead doesn’t always work, he deserves tremendous kudos for appreciating the importance of reinvention. This film highlights just how unwilling he is to rest on his laurels and cleverly disguises the deeply depressing fact that even an undisputed legend of Romero’s caliber can no longer attract the backers to truly elucidate his bleak and uncompromising vision. It’s effectively Night of The Living Dead by way of Cloverfield and provides further evidence that, all these years down the line, the legacy couldn’t be in any safer a pair of hands.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10

Grue Factor: 3/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers: Never fear fellow sickheads as, regardless of budgetary restrictions, Romero reinforces the belief that, when it comes to stopping the undead in their shuffling tracks, nobody does it better. Most of the splatter on the platter was actually added in post but you’d never know it as it’s all done with such evident care and attention. A pair of defibrillator pads are put to eye-poppingly effective use during one of the many ambushes and hydrochloric acid another, while watching a gun muzzle flash through a freshly dug head trench is priceless. “We’re even presented with a scythe-wielding Amish badass which, I’m fairly assured, represents a first for zombie cinema. 

Read Dawn of The Dead (1978) Appraisal
Read Day of The Dead (1985) Appraisal
Read Land of The Dead Appraisal
Read Wyrmwood: Road of The Dead Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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