George Romero’s zombie franchise has definitely run out of brains as well as steam. The original trilogy—“Night of the Living Dead” (1968), “Dawn of the Dead” (1978) and “Day of the Dead” (1985)—showed a sharp decline in the third installment, and though the frightmeister recouped somewhat with “Land of the Dead” in 2005 (and Zach Snyder had made an auspicious debut with his remake of “Dawn” the previous year), Romero’s new entry, “Diary of the Dead,” proves the worst of them all.
One can see what the filmmaker was aiming to do—recapture the gritty, realistic tone of the original “Night” as well as the sharp satire of “Dawn”—but “Diary” disappoints on both counts. Technically Adam Swica’s camerawork is just a bland reworking of “Blair Witch” cliches, and script-wise the picture’s critiques of society’s woes (particularly the government’s penchant for mendacity) and its commentary on the voyeuristic character of people’s desire to record everything for Internet exhibition come across not as clever or insightful but as both puerile and pretentious. Only viewers ready to forgive Romero for anything on the basis of nostalgia alone will find much here to praise, in terms of either technique or social observation.
“Diary” isn’t a continuation of Romero’s existing zombie trilogy-plus-one, but a piece that essentially transplants the original “Night” outbreak to the present era of ubiquitous camcorders. A bunch of Pittsburgh film students led by obsessive director Jason Creed (Josh Close) are making a cheap horror flick in the Pennsylvania woods when news of the zombie epidemic is broadcast over the airwaves. Rich-boy Ridley (Philip Riccio) zooms off alone for his estate, but after a stop back at the deserted campus the remaining souls collect in an old RV to drive to hoped-for safety. The group includes Jason’s squeeze Debra (Michelle Morgan); Tony (Shawn Roberts), another student filmmaker; obligatory nerd Eliot (Joe Dinocol); an inseparable couple consisting of Texas bimbo Tracy and her hunky guy Gordo (Amy Lalonde and Chris Violette); intense driver Mary (Tatiana Maslany); and alcoholic professor Maxwell (Scott Wentworth), who keeps swilling from a little flask that must be the most bottomless vessel of its kind since the one John Hurt guzzled for more than three hours in “Heaven’s Gate.”
What follows is a sort of gruesome road trip in which the crew (gradually decimated, of course) makes stops in a town taken over by militant vigilantes; a hospital where the undead lurk in wait; Debra’s suburban home, where she hopes to find her family alive and well but discovers them otherwise; and, finally, Ridley’s mansion, where more unhappy surprises and a final confrontation await them. There’s plenty of gore along the way, although it must be said that, in this age of torture porn, it lacks the capacity to shock and disgust that it once did.
And though, as in “Night,” major characters repeatedly perish, one never feels much regret over their passing because the script doesn’t give them any depth and the acting is so terrible that they all remain steadfastly cardboard. The supercilious Wentworth, with his plummy British accent and ever-present flask, is probably the goofiest of the bunch, but Lalonde runs him a close second (one wonders whether the fact that her Texas twang comes and goes without explanation is intended as a joke), and the rest come off like the hopeless amateurs they undoubtedly are.
But even the finest actors of our generation couldn’t have done much with Romero’s awful script. It’s difficult to know whether the drab ordinariness of most of the dialogue and the pompous banality of the characters’ periodic “meaningful” pronouncements are clever parody or just inordinately bad writing. But the occurrence of an observation like “It used to be us against us, then it was us against them, and now they’re us” certainly inclines one to the latter option. That probability is strengthened by the fact that when a bit that’s clearly meant to be bleakly funny does come along, it craters—most notably a sequence featuring a mute Amish farmer with a decidedly non-pacifist streak, at least when it comes to zombies. It’s painful, as well as demeaning.
“Diary of the Dead” ends with a sequence that’s obviously meant to offer a biting comment about the barbarity of modern man, even in comparison to the supposedly “inhuman” zombies. And it poses the question—“Are we worth saving?” with the response, “Maybe not.” Views on that may vary, but despite what will undoubtedly be knee-jerk praise for it from inveterate Romero fans, this movie isn’t.