Diary of the Dead is George A. Romero’s fifth installment in the Dead series he began 39 years ago with Night of the Living Dead. Diary is a return to the series’ roots, not only because it begins the myth anew, but also because of its style. Diary was independently produced by Romero and lacks the production value of other elaborate zombie films. It is the story of a group of students trying to go home after they’ve heard the news of a global epidemic that causes the dead to return to life and attack the living.
It is clear that Romero’s gifts for horror and suspense have only ripened with age—if only style and character development had followed suit. The often-forced tactic of scaring his audience with surprise zombie appearances is used as it should be in Diary. Unlike other films that try to give zombies characteristics compensating for their innate weaknesses, Romero embraces these weaknesses and uses them to frighten his audience. For example, when the characters try to fix their Winnebago in a deaf Amish farmer’s barn, Romero uses huge packs of zombies instead of building suspense with one rogue zombie. When the camera suddenly reveals a zombie behind one of the characters, it is not out of any cunning on the zombie’s part—rather, it is because the probability of having one of the 30 zombies behind one of the characters is reasonable.
Another example of Romero’s flair for horror is his camera work. Diary is one of the few films in recent memory that actually uses the shaky camera correctly. Sure, the camera shakes when characters are walking and running, but when a character shoots a zombie, the camera is static, letting the audience feel the effect of the shot. Though questions may be raised about whether a static camera take on zombie casualties is consistent with the film’s mockumentary style, the question becomes irrelevant because the technique works.
Sadly, that is one of the only elements of the style that does work. The essential problem with this film is that its style, though creative, ultimately hurts the film more than it helps it. Too often are we taken away from critical points in the plot and flung into a monologue interposed by the narrator. Apart from tearing us away from the zombie killing, these monologues are also redundantly sentimental and satirical. Their commentary is neither subtle nor astute—it just gets in the way. Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead trusted its audience to find the social satire in the film. At no point in Diary does Romero trust the audience to understand his satire. Romero should have done away with all but the last monologues.
On top of the flaws in style, Diary also falls short in dialogue and character development. The two romantically entwined main characters constantly re-hash the same old arguments that do not belong in the film to begin with. On top of that, the characters’ struggle to overcome their human attachment to their undead fellows seems contrived. When friends and family members are thrown in the mix, it becomes almost unbearable to watch.
Diary would be a good movie and a great zombie flick if it weren’t for Romero’s poor stylistic choices and characters. Though both prevent Diary from being a good film, watching the zombies get killed is still fun. Almost anyone who goes to this film wanting to see violent and unique zombie deaths will not be disappointed—they will probably be pleasantly surprised by killings involving a defibrillator, a bottle of hydrochloric acid, and a deaf Amish farmer’s scythe.