Diary Of The Dead (2007)

Shoot the dead

Writer: George A. Romero
Director: George A. Romero

Diary of the Dead is the fifth of George Romero’s zombie movies. Made in 2007 it addresses the then-new YouTube and mobile phone phenomenon where the world was becoming ever more virtualised and experienced second hand. As a great fan of Romero’s zombie films I both wanted and expected to like Diary. Unfortunately I was disappointed.

Like many found footage movies, Diary of the Dead professes to show us an unfolding horror – in this case a zombie rising – through eye witness experiences captured on a portable camera. However in Diary we’re not getting the raw footage. Instead the film has been shot by movie students who have edited it, added music and even credits! And that’s the point of the film.

Any Romero zombie film is bound to contain “an underlying thread of social satire” and in Diary this thread is more obvious than in most of his films. It’s all about the media – traditional and modern – and the eternal triangle of media, viewer and reality. Diary even begins with a camera crew asking an ambulance to park elsewhere because it’s blocking their shot!

The plot, such as it is, involves a group of – wait for it – film students who are shooting – wait for it – a horror movie when the zombie outbreak begins. There’s a nice dig here at the 2004 version of Dawn of the Dead as one student actor is told: “You’re a corpse for Christ’s sake, if you run that fast your ankles are going to snap off”.

Once the students realise what is happening they and their professor (played wonderfully by Scott Wentworth) set off on a fairly standard road trip trying to find loved ones and safety. So far so normal. What makes Diary different to every other Romero zombie film is that the whole story is shown through the camera of one of the students who decides to document the events.

In many found footage movies the emotional disassociation caused by the camera-eye view is an unfortunate problem. In Diary of the Dead it’s an intentional problem. The film centres around the way we experience so much of the modern world third hand. The YouTube generation have access to more experiences than any other people in history, yet it’s all indirect and potentially unreliable.

Diary extends this further – some of the nastiest events in the film are watched by the characters on various screens, watched by us in turn through the eyes of the camera. Classic NLP double disassociation designed to desensitise. Except it’s even stronger than that because the film we’re supposedly watching has been through post-production and editing before being released on the net. It even has an annoying voiceover for the hard of thinking – and just for once I suspect this was really in the script rather than added after the preview shows.

When violence and horror are subject to so many levels of disassociation, to what extent do we really relate to them? Does the very access to media that supposedly informs us actually desensitise us? To what extent are we the audience complicit in the violence? Diary of the Dead is clearly covering very similar themes to movies such as Funny Games. It’s not for nothing that the student film we’re supposedly watching has been titled “The Death of Death”: how much impact does death have when recorded on a mobile phone and watched on a website? Is it real to us any more or just entertainment?

The points Romero make are valid and important ones. Unfortunately he’s turned the social commentary knob up rather too high. Lines like “If it’s not on camera then it never happened” and “When we see an accident we don’t stop to help, we stop to look” are good in isolation but occur too frequently. This is less a movie with a subtext, more a polemic with a plot.

Ultimately Diary fails as horror because the zombies are reduced to bit players. It fails as social commentary because it lacks subtlety.