Diary of the Dead

UK Release Date 7th March 2008
Director George A Romero
Starring A bunch of zombies
Runtime 92 Minutes
Certificate 18
Reviewer Mark
Reviewed 7th April 2015

Diary of the Dead, George A Romero’s reboot, reimagining, parallel narrative, call it what you will to his seminal Night of the Living Dead is a scathing attack on the last days of George W Bush’s administration and the zombification of American youth through post 9/11 information overload. The zombies are like insurgents, radicalised by American foreign policy or the working class squeezed into rebellion by greedy banks and corporations. For this perfect storm of social commentary Romero ditches his carefully constructed EC Comics framing style and opts, like Diary’s contemporary found-footage movie Cloverfield, to shoot with hand-held cameras like a cinema-verite documentary.

Romero keeps Diary on the move, an undead road movie shot by a bickering bunch of film students led by the earnest (and later obsessive) Jason and his morose girlfriend Debra. Originally setting out to make a mummy film, “With an underlying threat of social satire” the group quickly shift genres to document the unfolding zombie apocalypse onboard an ailing Winnebago. Early on in the shoot Romero employs meta-humour to undermine Barbara’s scream-queen antics in the opening of Night of the Living Dead. Tough Texan Tracy, a mechanical wiz not afraid to shoot her boyfriend in the head whips off her blonde wig to proclaim, “Can somebody please explain to me why girls in scary movies always have to, like, fall down and lose their shoes and shit? It's totally lame. And why do we always have to get our dresses torn off?”

Breaking from the Rio Bravo siege narrative of Night of the Living Dead which forced Romero’s characters to act as a microcosm of American society in the 1960s, in the same manner as Steinbeck did in Of Mice and Men, Night was able to examine racial and gender inequality, the Cold War and America’s overreliance on technology, notably the car, the gun and the television. The Winnebago’s odyssey in Diary joins the dots of a society still sharply divided along racial lines revealed by the fall out from Hurricane Katrina, the Neo Conservative attitude to immigration, and the unseen financial victory won by Al- Qaeda as America poured trillions of dollars fighting The War On Terror. Debra sums up America’s appetite for death and misfortune, “What gets into our heads when we see something horrible? A horrible accident on the highway. Something keeps us from just driving on. Something holds us. But we don't stop to help. We stop to look.” 

On the eve of America’s own financial disaster Romero has the wit to cast the film students as middle class white kids, perhaps the only class stupid enough to waste a $100,000 university education on a profession that has intermittent employment at best. Perhaps they should have asked Romero about his own film career? Does the absence of black characters in this group mean that the divide between black and white has grown worse since Night of the Living Dead or are black families who can afford to send their children to university sensibly putting them into medicine or business instead?

Jason’s film within a film, The Death of Death allows Romero to open up this world through a series of vignettes, both recorded first hand and downloaded from the net to explore the current state of affairs in American society. Travelling across the country in their old Winnebago Jason, Debra and the rest of their group encounter an Amish man called Samuel. Samuel’s isolation from American modernity is so complete that he is deaf and this lack of communication keeps him safe from the zombie outbreak, that is until the students lead the technological age to his barn door. The zombies are a byproduct of rampant consumerism, American imperialism and uncensored technological advances, a viral campaign made flesh that infects quickly wherever the misguided students happen to travel.

Romero counters his lack of a strong black lead by introducing a heavily armed and organized group of black National Guardsman to the students. They have clearly learned from the struggles of Ben in Night and Peter in Dawn of the Dead as they are clearly steeped in their own community rather than trespass into white America and suffer at the hands of racists. Their leader when asked why they didn’t run hints at the lack of Federal help in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and possibly a certain U.S. Senator for Illinois waiting in the wings to become President when he says, “Cause we got the power. For the first time in our lives, we got the power 'cause everybody else left. All the folks without suntans.”

Perhaps the most chilling of all the allegorical messages in Diary of the Dead is how the Internet and new technology are rapidly sucking the peripheral vision from America’s youth. They are divorced and desensitized from violence from seeing beheadings online or countless smart bomb footage on every news platform just as 1960s America were treated to tea time body counts of the Viet Cong on television. On more than one occasion Jason and the others not only endanger their own lives but also more often than not jeopardize the lives of others, the camera lens a barrier to the horrors of life. As Debra points out to Jason, “If it didn't happen on camera, it's like it didn't happen, right?”

Tragically at the climax of the Diary of the Dead, Debra and Tony the most resistant to Jason’s ghoulish documentary are finally infected by the need to record everything said or done. Their movements with the camera are stiff and zombie like, their thirst for information as rabid as the zombies craving for human flesh. Deep in the bowels of the mansion of their rich friend Ridley, surrounded by poor zombies intent on seeing how the other half live, they finally exit into a panic room, their pampered lives ill equipping them to complete even the most rudimental of survival skills like locking a door or securing provisions. Instead Debra edits the rest of Jason’s film and tells us via her drab voiceover, “I've added music occasionally for effect, hoping to scare you. You see, in addition to trying to tell you the truth, I am hoping to scare you so that maybe you'll wake up. Maybe you won't make any of the same mistakes that we made.” 

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