Here's some breaking news: George Romero has made another zombie movie! Okay, so that's basically all he does, but DIARY OF THE DEAD, a reboot of the whole "Living Dead" series, flew so low under the public radar, many people don't even know it exists. You would think that a Romero zombie movie that cost only 2 million to make would have been hugely promoted and received a full theatrical release. Even if it was the worst film ever made, it would have made a huge profit on opening weekend regardless, given its low production cost. Even if it bombed and made only 10 million, that's still an 8 million dollars profit! 8 million dollars, Norton! But for some reason, the Weinstein Company bought the distribution rights and then only gave DIARY OF THE DEAD a limited release before it disappeared from movie screens. A shame. It's not a great film, but it's a Romero zombie movie, and that should still mean something in this world.
Then again, we've had so many zombie movies in the past few years that, as noted in my review of LAND OF THE DEAD, Professor Romero may have been left behind by his students. There are some wonderfully weird moments in DIARY OF THE DEAD, including a handful of rather unique ways of killing zombies, but as a whole, the film doesn't stand up to recent non-Romero zombie films like 28 DAYS LATER or the remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD. Rather than pick up on some of the threads found in LAND OF THE DEAD, such as the zombies evolving and gaining some intelligence, Romero decided to reboot the whole series. DIARY OF THE DEAD shows us the first few days of the zombie outbreak, just as in the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. He may try to dress it up in the no-longer novel idea of making it a home movie shot on video by a film student, but there is still a sense of been there, ate that.
The film begins with a film within a film, with a group of students making a mummy movie in the woods, and immediately, as Romero makes some jokes about horror clichés, you have to wonder if he ever saw SCREAM, which made the same points a decade ago in a much fresher way. When a news report begins telling of the dead rising up and attacking people, the students decide to pack up their stuff and head home. It's like a zombie "road" film, as some of the students document their trip using their video cameras. Parts of the trip are very entertaining (in a zombie movie way) but Romero's social and political criticisms are by now stale. In the crazed "Bush is Evil!" era of Hollywood, haranguing us with such opinions as the government and media not telling us the truth or the military being evil is about as novel these days as making a super hero movie or a Will Ferrell sports comedy. Romero's social comments used to be subtler (NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD) and funnier (DAWN OF THE DEAD).
Still, a Romero movie is almost always worth watching, and DIARY OF THE DEAD does add some classic moments and characters to the whole series. A deaf Amish farmer who nevertheless knows how to handle zombies goes down in history along with Bub, Big Daddy and Johnny ("They're coming to get you, Barbara") as one of the series most memorable characters. No Romero zombie movie is really complete without a "Clown Zombie", and Romero treats us to a few moments of a really bad children's party. He still doesn't show us exactly how a clown becomes a zombie (and then still manages to make it to the children's party), but maybe that will be for the next film. CIRCUS OF THE DEAD, anyone? And the imagery of an entire family of zombies suspended in a swimming pool by the surviving family member is pretty creepy.
The least essential of Romero's "Dead" series, DIARY OF THE DEAD would have been more impressive had it been made twenty years ago. Despite some excellent scenes, DIARY OF THE DEAD is still a film in which George Romero is clearly borrowing his ideas from others, rather than the other way around. Nevertheless, it deserved a better fate than to become a virtual direct to DVD release. ½ - JB
THEY'RE COMING TO GET ME, BARBARA!
"This movie sucked! It was horrible! I
"Dude, I didn't make the movie, I just lent it to you."
Best recollection of a telephone chat I had with a friend after lending him the movie on his request.