My girlfriend is a big George Romero fan, so of course we went to see his new low-budget zombie film this weekend. At first I wasn’t sure I was going to like it. Apart from a fantastic scene involving a news team on the scene when some of the first zombies appear, the first 15 or 20 minutes were tough going. The voiceover was too portentous, the handheld camera was nauseating, and the film-student characters weren’t especially appealing. But once they got onto the road, the movie got a lot more compelling, and some of the scenes are among his very best work.
There are plenty of problems, though, plenty of ammo for those who say it’s his worst to date. The characters are paper-thin and don’t develop much, and either as a cause or a result of that, the acting is pretty uneven, sometimes verging on camp. Though it’s done with an impressive attention to detail, the conceit that every shot in the movie is either downloaded footage or taken with the students’ own cameras is tough to swallow at times. The social critique of the film, that we’re becoming a culture of voyeurs who can’t stop watching tragedy through the camera lens long enough to get into the shot and intervene, is mixed up with its counterpoint, that we can’t trust major media to give us the truth and when true disaster strikes, only the bloggers and YouTubers will be left to give us the scoop. Whether or not you buy either of these themes, you have to admire the cleverness and depth of playing them off one another, and perhaps it’s that complexity that leads the script to hit you over the head with them. And when they’re embodied in the character through whose camera we’re seeing most of the action, Jason Creed, we can’t help but feel his passivity is more symbolically exaggerated than plausible. It would have been an interesting character development to see something finally push him to put the camera down, but because that moment never comes, it’s hard to accept him as a real person.
The realest moment as far as the students are concerned comes early on, when one of the characters mows down a few people who may or may not have been zombies and becomes suicidal with guilt and uncertainty. There could have been many more moments like this, because for the first time in Romero’s canon since maybe Night of the Living Dead we’re seeing people react to the initial zombie outbreak, rather than coping with a situation already in progress as in the last three films. This makes their reactions the logical emotional center of the film, and while we don’t need them to say “zombies” (is it a thing with Romero that no one uses that word?) we kind of expect them to have some context to put this in, or to panic in a variety of ways at their lack of context. It’s not this straightforward, though; we don’t really get the stoic one, the squeamish one, the hysterical one, the sadistic one, and the unhinged one, though we see flashes (sometimes long flashes) of each of these. It would be too formulaic to ask each student to wear an emotion like a t-shirt, and this isn’t what Romero’s after anyway.
No, the point here is larger than the characters we’re following, and just as in real life, they wouldn’t all distinguish themselves as equal members of an ensemble cast. The movie is about what happens when a disaster rips the foundations out of life. There’s the hospital, completely abandoned by the living. There’s the warehouse filled with looted supplies…and looters. There’s the encounter with the National Guardsmen, which is the most effective (and plausible) off-camera scene in the movie. Then there are the simpler moments, walking into a house that used to be a home and discovering the worst, presaged only by broken glass and half-open doors. Romero has both Iraq and Katrina at the top of his mind, and when you look past all the talk about cameras, you see those situations and others discussed in surprising and thought-provoking ways.
Diary of the Dead isn’t a perfect movie, and probably won’t be given a fifth of the credit it deserves, but there’s more going on than the “Cloverfield with zombies” criticism its timing will garner. Even if you don’t find fascinating the small touches, such as the editing beeps you hear without further comment during Creed’s big speech (who edited it? what was edited out? why would this have been done?), you’re sure to love some of the “best” eye-popping, brain-melting zombie kills Romero’s ever filmed. And two of them are delivered by an Amish farmer armed only with dynamite and a scythe.