First a caveat which is important to the remainder of this review. I know that some of you reading this are hardcore Star Trek fans. Others among you are hardcore Star Wars fans. I think the Star Wars fans among you will best appreciate this.
I first saw NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD over a decade after its release, in college, projected in the teeny movie theater on campus. It totally blew me away and ever since, I was a hardcore George Romero fan. I watched every movie of his I could find. Some I liked, like Knightriders, and some I loved, like CREEPSHOW. But none did I love more than NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. By the time I had seen NOTLD, DAWN OF THE DEAD was already out, through the chain theater system, and playing in arthouse theaters if you could find it. My friends and I did and we were totally blown away. It was sealed, I was a zombie fiend.
Some folks didn't like the final part of the trilogy, DAY OF THE DEAD, but I sure did (I know a movie came after, but then it wasn't a trilogy anymore, was it?). I also became hooked upon Romero's idea that sequels didn't need any of the same actors - ever! They just needed what made them great in the first place: Monsters.
Many years passed before Romero decided to take another crack at the DEAD series. For those of you who are George Lucas fans, I'll tell you right now, as excited as I was to hustle into the theater to catch the very first showing of LAND OF THE DEAD, I felt as let down by it as most of you felt by the second of the Star Wars trilogies.
Romero was taken aback by the largely negative reaction, by his own fans, to LAND. It wasn't like most of us we're getting in his face about it, but sales will tell. As of this writing, the expensive Elite Millenium Edition DVD of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD has an amazon.com sales rank of #7,871. To be honest, sales ranks for this one are all over the board because anyone can make a DVD of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and many do. You can even get a colorized version. So the combined sales rank of this DVD places the movies considerably closer to #1 than the rank of any one of them.
DAWN OF THE DEAD - on expensive Blu-Ray no less - has a sales rank of #1,446
DAY OF THE DEAD (again on expensive Blu-Ray) has a sales rank of #1,779
LAND OF THE DEAD (the lowest priced of any of these) has a sales rank of #8,510! Granted, maybe the DEAD fans prefer their movies in High Definition. But even among the more expensive HD-DVDs, LAND only goes up to 2,901. Clearly the worst performing of the bunch in any category.
Even the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake (fast zombies) on expensive HD-DVD has a sales rank of #1,031.
So George told us all that in DIARY OF THE DEAD, he would be going back to his roots, as it were. DIARY OF THE DEAD starts on day 1 of the zombie holocaust.
"I started this zombie shit! Is this the Motherf*cking thanks I get?"
Apologies to Dr. Dre, but with DIARY OF THE DEAD, Romero is clearly too old to play the game he started.
DIARY OF THE DEAD begins with a woman's voice telling us what we are about to see. This is a dreary taste of things to come. The first known attack by the living dead. The only reason we call it the first, is because it was recorded. As is stated repeatedly (We GET it!) "If it isn't recorded, its like it never happened." Like all good Romero movies, DIARY puts us right into the action immediately. We watch a news report go horribly wrong. The route of humanity has begun.
The woman also tells us that what we've just seen comes from the Internet. That the cameraman, knowing that his bosses would skew the story into something fictional, sent it out immediately before it could be touched. We are witnessing raw unedited reality.
The woman speaking to us is Debra (Michelle Morgan: ROAD RAGE, FIRE SERPENT). Debra tells us that she has put all of this together for us so that we'll know the truth (since we as an audience are supposed to be living in the time of a world-wide zombie plague, we - each of us - has already witnessed the truth. All Debra can offer is her version). What all of that is, is the movie we are about to see, shot on HD-DV cameras and edited on a notebook computer. Debra tells us that she also added music because she wants to scare us: we should be scared by what we are about to see.
This drew an embarrassed chuckle from the audience because it's such an awkward statement. For one thing, anyone who is cuing up and editing a soundtrack to go along with video of real world murder, suffering, and death of her family and friends, is a far scarier, sicker, person than anything she is about to show us. She's inhumanly evil.*
Soon we are on a terribly botched student movie set where everyone is crabby, the director can't direct, and the folks have had enough of each other and everyone around them. The main worry is that they won't get college credit for their film, but their drunken sot of a teacher, Mr. Maxwell (Scott Wentworth) assures them that they're fine on that point.
The other point is that everyone knows director Jason Creed (Joshua Close: THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, THE PLAGUE) has blown the little Mummy movie they are trying to make. During a break, they hear some staggeringly unlikely news on the radio. It isn't real. It can't be.
Jason's biggest critic on the set, Tony (Shawn Roberts: X-MEN, LAND OF THE DEAD), doesn't buy it, believing its got to be a hoax. But the star of the movie, their Mummy Ridley (Philip Riccio) uses the bizarre news report as an excuse to make a run for his wealthy family's security compound. He invites the others along, then speeds off in his sports car, one of the cast in tow. Everyone else is left to load up the equipment and pile back into their RV. They're going back to school to deliver the equipment. What they find there makes Jason want to make another movie: A documentary called The Death of Death. Everyone else thinks this is a bad idea and the notion only causes a deeper opening in the rift between Jason and his straying girlfriend, Debra.
Tony suffers some major blows to his hoax theory when the group meet up with real zombies in the flesh chewing flesh. Perhaps the best, most scariest scene in the whole movie is when they're in the hospital, trying to find help for one of their friends, and are confronted beyond disbelief at what the world has become.
Romero's ever present morbid humor is also on play, as George hasn't forgotten the precise timing of humor right after or right before a shock.
But there are gaffs that extend into the ridiculous.
One of the students is Tracy (Amy Cuipak Lalonde). The character is from Texas and, when dispatching a zombie who was once her friend, hoots, "Don't mess with Texas!" The audience laughter was derisive and the groans were heartbreaking.
Romero is no fan of Zak Snyder and James Gunn's DAWN OF THE DEAD remake. George can accept people returning from the dead, having an unbridled taste only for human flesh, and rotting but never rotting away. He can accept all of those impossibilities except zombies running. In the movie it is explained why, it just isn't adequately explained why.
It's that fast part that Romero finds unbelievable out of all of this. And what's odd about this is, as DIARY OF THE DEAD clearly demonstrates a few times over, the dead not only move quite fast, but they can also turn invisible.
No, that is not a typo.
In DIARY OF THE DEAD, his zombies turn invisible. There were a few scenes where someone is in close-up, looks carefully all around themselves, then turns to the camera and says, "Nope, no zombies here!" At which point they are immediately attacked. Which means that the zombie was either invisible or was standing Right Next To Them!
No matter how slow and shambling a gait Romero's zombies have when they are walking, they are inhumanly fast when it comes to leaping and jumping. Romero's undead leap like electrified cats! What's more, you can look directly at them and see nothing. What's more, the camera widens the shot, pans and sees nothing. But the instant the camera zooms back in on someone's face and they say those magic words "No zombies here!"
Out leaps a zombie which invariably goes for the throat. Even if that throat is covered by a bio suit, the zombie will leap, grab, and bite a chunk out of someone's throat all in the space of a second. Unless that person is supposed to tragically survive for a bit. Then they get a bite on the arm or leg.
The make-up is by Gregg Nicotero (KILL BILL, SIN CITY, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR , LAND OF THE DEAD, THE ISLAND, SERENITY, HOSTEL, THE HILLS HAVE EYES , PRIMEVAL, GRINDHOUSE, PLANET TERROR, DEATH PROOF, THE MIST) and crew so, while it's good, on a $2 million dollar budget you can't expect The Chronicles of Narnia good.
For example, George covers things like cellphones going out, telephones going out, Television stations going out, even power going out: things he has no doubt experienced for years. Yet in an entirely arbitrary way, power comes back on whenever and where ever it is needed. What's more, since this is supposed to be a worldwide phenomenon, who in the hell is running all of the computer servers in all of these nations where presumably they are having just as much trouble with their power grid as the rest of us?
And so this movie slowly implodes upon itself. There's over 90 minutes of the movie setting up its own internal logic and immediately smashing it whenever it suits Romero.
If Romero wanted fast zombies, fine. If he wanted invisible zombies, fine. If he wanted an Internet that was so advanced that it would keep running even without electricity or people maintaining it, fine (for example, it could take place in the far flung future when those technologies exist). But to very specifically and repeatedly set-up the story of his movie and then betray it, creating huge plot holes all over the place, left me shaking my head.
The Romero of the old days (which, conversely, was Romero in his much younger days) would never have had so little regard for his audience as to think he could get away with that. And as proof of my authority in saying this, you only have to watch his NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, DAWN OF THE DEAD, and DAY OF THE DEAD. Those three movies are a perfect film school of how a Horror movie should be made. Zombies may be unbelievable to you (not all Horror fans are zombie fans), but Romero never betrayed his story's own logic. And since George wrote, directed, and produced DIARY OF THE DEAD entirely the way he saw fit, he has no one to blame but himself.
In countless cheapo low budget Horror flicks from HYBRID to ALIEN 3000 to LETHAL TARGET and worse, writers have portrayed young people in Horror movies as constantly bitching and sniping at each other in a never-ending series of one-upmanship. No matter how horrible the circumstances, no matter how many have died, the remainder keep at each other's throats until you can't wait to see them all die off. It's like watching the worst Reality Show ever. DIARY OF THE DEAD follows this formula.
Finally, the narration: Debra, the narrator, won't shut up!
There are so many otherwise good moments that could have carried through great if only Debra wasn't there to tell us that something was about to happen, or to hear her take on how awful it all was.
We the audience, can SEE how awful the Horror is. We don't need Romero thinking we're so bloody freaking stupid that we can't even be scared or moved by his movie unless he verbally - through the character of Debra - holds our hand and leads us dumbly throughout his film.
This On-The-Nose writing is just pathetic. How desperate does Romero have to be to do this? Why would he sacrifice his own movie just to appeal to the kind of people who never respected his work in the first place? This is something that young George never did. In the early interviews I have with Romero in everything from Fangoria to High Times (I have the interviews, I didn't DO the interviews), young George never worried about his legacy with critics who didn't even like Horror in the first place. George only concerned himself with the genre fans. And we responded with our money, our time, our loyalty, and our driving hundreds of miles out of our way to see him at various conventions and showed the potential investors that he mattered.
Young George would also have never let a character be so preachy as Debra. Debra sanctimoniously prattles on as she ponders whether humanity is worth saving. Hey you despicable heartless bitch! YOU are the one cueing and editing a musical soundtrack to the deaths of your own family, friends and classmates! Who are you to judge anyone?
DIARY OF THE DEAD could be a far better movie if Romero just stripped out the constant self-indulgent drone of Debra. We don't need to hear her mewling caterwaul describing what we see. Removing the idea of invisible zombies who only appear when the camera is tight on someone's face would also improve the movie. And finally, if you are going to insist that zombies are slow and shambling, then they have to be Slow and Shambling, not lightening quick whenever it suits you to cheat with a cheap "Boo!" moment.
DIARY OF THE DEAD is an absolute mess. One Shriek Girl.
And while I'm on the subject -
In fact, though I saw DIARY OF THE DEAD on Tuesday, I've waited until the Friday when it opened to write this review, when people would already be going to the theater to make up their own minds. Despite this review, I am not into trashing George Romero. So this is the last review I'm going to write of any more of his movies. Unless he makes something that I can enthusiastically tell the world about, (Hopefully CREEPSHOW will get a decent special edition and I'll tell you about that!) I'm ignoring all of his future work.
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