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Diary of the Dead   C+

The Weinstein Company / Artfire Films

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: R
Director: George A. Romero
Writer: George A. Romero
Cast: Michelle Morgan, Josh Close, Shawn Roberts, Amy Lalonde, Joe Dinicol, Scott Wentworth, Philip Riccio, Chris Violette, Tatiana Maslany.

Review by Rob Vaux

The details are second to none, as they are in even the worst of his movies. The opening sequence of Diary of the Dead depicts a bubbly blonde talking head, anchoring the coverage of Action 10 News at yet another scene of "domestic violence." She chatters away inanely as her camera crew frames the ambulance drivers bringing out murder victims under sheets. Then, almost without anyone noticing, the bodies shudder to life and take a big wet bite out of the nearest paramedics -- all in living color and beamed to bored suburbanites throughout the greater Pittsburgh area. And you realize with a quiet, subversive cackle that George A. Romero is back.

If little scenes like that are all you require, Diary of the Dead is a treasure trove of zombie goodness. Once again, Romero plunges us into his signature nightmare as the dead rise from the grave and we -- the most advanced society in history -- prove utterly incapable of dealing with it. This time, he filters the mayhem through a group of student filmmakers, shooting a monster movie in the Pennsylvania woods and equipped with the latest cameras, computers, and Internet uplinks to record the phenomenon as it occurs. They soon retreat to the shoot's Winnebago, joined by their alcoholic advisor (Scott Wentworth) and cruising the back roads in search of protection as the world falls apart around them. The video recorders become a rock to cling to amid the madness, their Internet uploads of the carnage a reason to stay alive. It also gives Romero a Blair Witch-inspired visual hook, presenting his mayhem through the first-person perspective of the unblinking camera eye.

Ostensibly, that serves to differentiate it from the other four Dead movies. We see the cacophony of the YouTube generation explode into panic, increasing the white noise of an online world where two billion people can surf on over and watch you shriek as you're devoured alive. In their efforts to tell the truth and thus "save lives," the college-age protagonists become so obsessed with documenting their increasingly harrowing search for solace that they can barely be bothered to put down their cameras and help each other when danger arises. So it goes for ninety-odd minutes while the slow tide of zombies grows larger and larger, and the number of survivors dwindles to a hardcore few.

If it sounds familiar, it most definitely feels that way: adequate for some fans, but never original enough to really justify a fifth chapter in the venerable horror franchise. The digital age subplot holds a certain power, but we've certainly seen no shortage of similar films of late (J-horror has been milking it for years, and -- hard to believe though it is -- we're a good decade removed from Blair Witch). While blending it all with Romero's battered old warhorse of a concept works conceptually, it fails to produce any new revelations. A tired sense of "been there, done that" settles over the proceedings, heightened by periodic idiocy on the part of the young protagonists more befitting a bad Friday the 13th sequel than a project with such credentials. A number of (literal) dead ends arise simply because none of the characters bothered to think things through, belying their canny toughness presumably intended to garner our sympathy.

While the overall concept can't hide its shopworn roots, however, individual moments within it simply soar. Romero's puckish sense of anarchy never gets old, and he constantly finds new ways to deliver the shuffling moaning money shots that so many of his fans adore. The sight of a zombie clown at a birthday party or a fake movie mummy running from real undead can always elicit an evil smile, while the brief appearance of an Amish farmer keeps the series true to its Keystone State roots. (And raises intriguing possibilities for another sequel: who better equipped, both physically and socially, to survive such a catastrophe than the Amish?)

Moments like these remind us that Diary of the Dead is more than just a splatterfest, and that the name atop the credits means more than just marketing buzz. They hold exquisite joys, to be sure, but those joys stand alone and isolated amid a well-intentioned film that never quite connects the dots. The rest feels like all-too-obvious gimmickry, full of broad social statements and genre elements just a tad too stale to fire us up. Fans may be happy with its incidental gags, and the plot's various retreads may feel comforting to some (as much as such material can be called comforting). But without a more dynamic engine, Diary of the Dead becomes just the same old corpse in a new set of clothes.

Also read: Q&A: George A. Romero.

Review published 02.15.2008.

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