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Dustin Putman

Dustin's Review
George A. Romero's
Diary of the Dead
1 Star
Directed by George A. Romero
Cast: Michelle Morgan, Joshua Close, Shawn Roberts, Amy Ciupak Lalonde, Joe Dinicol, Scott Wentworth, Philip Riccio, Chris Violette, Tatiana Maslany; Megan Park, George A. Romero.
2008 – 95 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for strong violence and gore, and pervasive language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, February 16, 2008.
Horror filmmaker George A. Romero, the grandfather of the zombie genre, has made some of history's most iconic films about the undead. Mixing timely messages, social commentary and sly satire with scares and gore has always been his forte of choice, helping to broaden the scope of projects that otherwise would have just been about violence, chaos and bloodshed for the sake of it. That said, it's difficult to believe that the same man responsible for 1968's groundbreaking "Night of the Living Dead" had a thing to do with "Diary of the Dead," his fifth entry in the quasi-series that also includes 1978's "Dawn of the Dead," 1985's "Day of the Dead," and 2005's "Land of the Dead." This is a wretched motion picture, so dismally misguided and amateurishly made that it appears to have been directed by a talentless hack trying (and failing) to copy Romero's style.

Comparing the recent monster invasion pic "Cloverfield" with "Diary of the Dead" is warranted; after all, they both abide by the same concept of taking a horrific, disastrous event and capturing it completely from the point-of-view of an onscreen character's personal video camera. If you're going to go the ultra-real route of 1999's "The Blair Witch Project" and expect audiences to accept what they are watching as authentic, it is imperative that certain criteria be met. Acting must be unforced and naturalistic. Dialogue must be free-floating and unpolished, sounding the way everyday people talk. In fact, the documentary feel should sweep over every aspect of the production; if you're doing justice to the tricky format, viewers should believe for the span of ninety minutes that what they are seeing really happened. "Cloverfield" got all of this exactly right and the results were gritty, riveting and frankly terrifying. "Diary of the Dead" fails on every level.

The ways in which writer-director George A. Romero botches the finished product are too numerous to count. Instead of just presenting us with the raw recorded footage and trusting that we will be able to follow things, he has haphazardly opted to spell everything out via a voiceover narration that constantly is butting into scenes and taking the viewer out of the material. Worse still, said narrator Debra (Michelle Morgan) explains that she has added music to compliment the images and make things more frightening. Are you kidding me? When videographer Jason (Joshua Close) says late in the film that he has presented "nothing but the truth," it comes as a joke. "Diary of the Dead" is anything but truthful, a rancidly manipulative and downright insulting lampoon of "real" footage that even goes so far as to include loud stingers accompanying jump scenes and a totally silly and inappropriate twangy southern melody to overscore the Texas-bred character's final moments. In the face of earth's apocalypse, Debra sure must have retained a sense of humor if she thought to add comic relief in her post-production edit.

The barebones plot, as it were, revolves around the way the world reacts when the dead abruptly start coming back to life one day as flesh-eating zombies. While the military dismantles, the government breaks apart, and normal citizens start looting and committing crimes in a panic, aspiring director and grad student Jason finds his work on a low-budget student film permanently cancelled as he and his crew set off across the rural Pennsylvania landscape in a Winnebago, headed for the home of Debra's family in Scranton.

"Diary of the Dead" is a succession of false notes, the first being the utterly calm and aloof response the characters have to learning from news reports that the dead are rising. When one of their own—a friend, lover or family member—meets an unfortunate end, the rest of them not only don't look particularly upset, but adopt the facial expressions of people debating what they would like to have for dinner. In another scene, after two straight days of witnessing unspeakable horrors, the nebbish Gordo (Chris Violette) merrily whistles to himself as he disrobes for a relaxing bath. Meanwhile, the reasons given for why Jason refuses to break away from recording the goings-on are nothing but a gimmicky contrivance that have none of the pathos as Heather Donahue's similar film student character in "The Blair Witch Project." And, to top it all off, Romero's comments on today's reliant age of technology and communication, along with a throwback to the undead-vs.-alive "they're-us-and-we're-them" adage, are heavy-handed and condescending.

As if all of these storytelling problems weren't enough, the performances are atrocious, not one of the actors plausible, likable or sympathetic in their roles. The bad acting and stilted dialogue are a grave disservice to what is intended as a faux-documentary. Never scary but frequently cartoonish in its sour humor, "Diary of the Dead" can't even figure out if it wants to be taken seriously or as a poor, unfunny spoof. Virtually the only saving grace of the film, and the reason why its rating isn't lower than one star, is the purveying interest in wanting to know where the characters are going to end up next. We don't care who lives or dies—they're all one-note ciphers—but the locations are attractive and spooky, from an abandoned hospital, to a farmhouse and barn, to a beautiful mansion during the dead-end third act. Oh, and there is also a creepy little scene depicting a zombie clown showing up at a little girl's birthday party; it's fabulously perverse. In "Diary of the Dead," which is on the level of direct-to-DVD schlock and isn't watchable enough to warrant theatrical distribution, you take what you can get, and what you get is a depressing mess with few redeeming qualities. George A. Romero's "off-day" must have lasted from the moment he began writing the script to the second he sent the end result to print.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman