I was surprised to find when looking up showtimes for this film that the official title was George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead. Apparently, and with fairly good reason, a zombie film is almost completely unreleasable unless Romero's name is inscribed. For the last forty years he has set the standard of the genre, good or bad and virtually defined the modern horror film. Diary of the Dead isn't a continuation of Land of the Dead, nor is it necessarily a pre-quel. It's as if he's starting over again, going back to the beginning but not going back in time. The film is very much rooted in the present day with tie-ins to youtube and myspace all over the place. Romero himself did a great deal of promotion for this film through myspace releasing various interviews and trailers for the project months before it was released. It seems odd that this old time horror director could still set the standard. Romero's non-zombie related films never achieved any degree of success that the Dead films did, so you can't slight the man for going back to the well. The film takes on a very personal tone, shot by a bunch of film school students in Romero's old back yard of Pittsburgh. It makes sense for technical reasons that Pitt actually does have a rather reputable film program. However like Land of the Dead before it, the film was shot in Canada, this time Ontario is meant to represent Pennsylvania.
There are no new answers to the story, but if we've learned anything from the past forty years its that we don't really need an explanation for how zombies are created. Return of the Living Dead was one of the few films that sought to explain where they originated (an experimental chemical called Trioxin-245), but Romero makes no such explanation. Like Night before it the film is pure social satire. It is examining our fear obsessed culture and takes a profound nihilistic attitude towards it. There is great pandering to traditional genre aficionados, and Romero has some extremely memorable gore scenes. I wonder sometimes if there were great round table discussions on new ways to kill zombies. Here we see a zombie's eyes pop out of her skull after being fried by a defibrillator, a deaf Amish man stick a scythe through his own head and into the zombie behind him, a zombie strung up by its mouth having its body blown away, and in the most impressive sequence hydrochloric acid burning a zombies skull until brains are visible. The last sequence was done without any cuts and is far more impressive than all the bloated CGI garbage I've been seeing for the last decade or so.
Since Blair Witch shooting with video cameras has become a painful cliche, but Romero seems to do it right here. At times Jason Creed's (Josh Close) desire to document everything gets a little tedious and in one sequence near the end he nearly lets his friend get killed by a zombie in a mummy costume rather than helping her. We get a sense of vindication from the scene and it was set up to directly parallel the first look at the characters when they are in a similar woods shooting their own fictional film. They mention that the dead move slowly, the girl always trips, and that the zombie/mummy grabs at the girl's dress in order to expose her breasts. All is brought back in a wonderful bit of dramatic irony and remains one of the film's self referential winks to the audience. Granted we do have to witness an insufferable "Don't mess with Texas" line but that can be overlooked for the greater good.
The film is largely about people's desire for survival and at several points in the film the question of whether its worth living in a world like this is brought up. Jason seems to have no desire to live, and due to his character traits as an audience we really don't care to see him survive the ordeal, especially after the encounter in the woods. Debra (Michelle Morgan) is the feisty strong willed female that is a wonderful counterpoint to the typically weak females of zombie films, Romero's in particular. She is not the run around screaming until someone helps her type but the self appointed leader of the bunch who we know survives because it is her narrating the film within the film. Morgan is outstanding in the film, and in general the cast is top notch, full of unknowns who have a wonderful ability to emote almost on cue. A project of this kind can easily be lost with a weak cast, and Romero certainly gets the most out of this group. I was surprised particularly with Morgan because I haven't seen her in anything before yet she comes off as so familiar and endearing, although like Jason she too can get a little preachy. The film might not be a masterpiece in the traditional sense but its the best damn zombie movie I've seen in a very long time, and I've seen a lot of them.