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Diary of the Dead

By Cole Haddon | Posted 2/13/2008

Diary of the Dead, writer/director George A. Romero's fourth sequel to 1968's Night of the Living Dead, tries to reinvent the horror subgenre by harking back to his original in locale, scope, and low budget. Ultimately, though, Romero's need to telegraph the social relevance of his opus--rather than leave it part of the movie's subtextual fabric--undermines it.

Such heavy-handedness is so foreign to a Romero zombie flick that almost every time a character utters a line of dialogue you flinch with surprise and discomfort. Zombies have long served as surrogates for social commentary, vessels into which storytellers pour whatever topical national dysfunction. Whether it's communism, racism, consumerism, or classism, the odds are zombies have once represented it, and, moreover, Romero--who invented the modern zombie movie--probably made a movie about it, too.

With Diary, the zombies finally don't represent anything. The real enemy is mankind. Whenever faced with hellish situations, man becomes his own greatest enemy and, rather than find a way to work together for survival, breaks apart and perishes. Romero has always understood this, and this time around his characters implode in front of and behind film student Jason's (Joshua Close) camera. Shot entirely from a subjective, digital-video perspective--a "documentary" finessed into a narrative feature à la Cloverfield--Romero argues that the YouTube generation, oversaturated with visual information and misinformation that must be experienced via a link or video feed, has lost its humanity. We distant ourselves from reality, refuse to participate in it, and even fail to interfere when others are in danger--often because the buffer effect of a video camera has created an "us" and "them" mentality. Jason is us magnified; he won't put his camera down because, as his girlfriend says, nothing's real until he records it. Eventually, even his detractors in the group of survivors become seduced by the lens' power to help them cope.

Diary of the Dead has much to say that should be said, but not with a loudspeaker like this. Luckily, the movie is buoyed with wonderful suspense, gruesome and cheer-worthy scenes of man-on-zombie violence, and more than a few digs by Romero against filmmakers who have tried to emulate him. The best: He makes it clear that, despite the current trend of making zombies run, the undead's ankles would just snap. That's why they stagger and lurch, duh.

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