Director George A. Romero, 68, has been making zombie movies for the past 40 years, which is definitely an achievement of sorts. And while the genre has grown crowded in recent times with Resident Evil sequels and the like, Romero’s movies still feel like no one else’s, partly because they tend to be rough around the edges and partly because he firmly believes gory horror can also be left-leaning social critique.
So watching Romero’s five “Blank of the Dead” films is a little like seeing a recap of U.S. history since 1968 through a lens spattered with blood and viscera. Night of the Living Dead, in which deceased Americans first rose from their graves to devour their living friends and relations, evoked comparisons to Vietnam. In Dawn of the Dead (1978), zombies paraded around a shopping mall, looking not unlike real live zoned-out consumers. Day of the Dead (1985) satirized Reagan-era militarism. In 2005’s Land of the Dead, a rare big-budget entry in the series, the undead became an underclass mob invading a gated community — and Dennis Hopper, playing the villain, solemnly declared he wouldn’t negotiate with terrorists.
That’s a long way from the simple black-and-white gore fest that terrified young matinée-goers in 1968. With each movie, Romero’s scripts get more explicitly topical and didactic, and that trend reaches its apogee in Diary of the Dead. The movie isn’t really about zombies; it’s about Web 2.0 and a society saturated with images and video clips, and Romero isn’t going to let you forget it. “The more points of view, the more spin,” the film’s narrator laments at one point. “The truth gets lost . . . it’s all just noise.”
That preachy narrator is Debra (Michelle Morgan), who tells us she created the film we’re seeing from footage shot by her boyfriend, film student Jason (Joshua Close). Jason just happened to be working on his senior project, a horror movie, when the dead rose from their graves. Like Heather in The Blair Witch Project, he’s a control- freak director who refuses to stop shooting in situations where any sane person would run for cover. So what we see is what Jason sees, until his friends conveniently discover a second camera, which adds a few more angles.
But Jason goes the kids in Blair Witch and Cloverfield one better by editing his shaky footage of zombie rampages on the fly and posting it directly to his MySpace page — where, he crows, it already has 72,000 hits. As the government does its best to censor and control news coverage of the impending apocalypse, viral videos like his purport to tell the real story. But do they? Or do they just feed panic, encouraging the living to use the dead for target practice and blow one another’s heads off for good measure?
It’s a thought-provoking scenario for a horror flick. But Diary never really gets off the ground, in part because Romero’s screenplay is painfully heavy-handed. (Subtlety was never his forte.) Debra mocks Jason and the media culture he represents by saying, “If it didn’t happen on camera, it never happened” — a line she repeats later, in case we didn’t get the point. (It doesn’t help that Michelle Morgan is a pretty girl who, like most of the cast, could use some acting practice.) And the less said about the crusty English film professor who goes around muttering about violence and social degeneration, the better.
In fact, many bits of Diary of the Dead play better as a campy satire of their genre than a social commentary. Some could have been lifted directly from Shaun of the Dead, like the early scene where Jason, filming his horror movie, tells the actor playing a mummy to shamble after his victim, because “dead things don’t move fast.” (The zombies in Romero’s movies are notoriously slow.)
So is Romero taking himself too seriously, or not seriously at all? One thing’s for sure: This horror movie is about as scary as reading a curmudgeonly blog post. But it’s still an intriguing little addition to the Dead series boxed set.