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DVD Review: George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead

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When Diary of the Dead arrived in theaters in mid-February it was already seen as a copycat, using the first person video camera perspective of Cloverfield, which had arrived a month earlier. Of course, Diary of the Dead was shot prior to the Cloverfield release, but perception is everything and its later release date doomed it to its copycat fate.

This doesn't even get into Cloverfield coming well after The Blair Witch Project and way later than Cannibal Holocaust (and probably others) in its use of the "found footage" gimmick. Despite all of that, the zombie film never did get a wide theatrical release, reaching a mere 48 theaters at its widest and taking in less than $1 million. It will have to make its money on the DVD market. After watching it, I hope that it does, as it is quite a good film. It is much better than the early word would have you believe.

The story of Diary of the Dead begins way back in 1968. That was the year that director George A. Romero unleashed a new vision of zombies upon the world, thus sparking an interest in zombie films that has lasted ever since. He brought the flesh-eating, bloody beings to vivid life, and since the release of that film, Romero's name has become synonymous with the genre, and anytime he returns to the zombie world, fans sit up and take notice. The success of his movies has always been a bit questionable, but even with that fact, no one makes a zombie flick quite like Romero. This means that Diary of the Dead has some built-in interest.

Something else that is interesting in how he approaches his zombie films is that he sees them on the surface as comic books; he is not interested so much in quality of performance, nor continuity within the series, so much as using the film as a vehicle for his own social commentary. This can be used to explain the technological inconsistencies that exist throughout his zombie series (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, and Diary of the Dead).

Diary of the Dead is centered on the idea that all media is manipulated to the point of not knowing if anything presented is the truth, and that a lot of effort must be taken to discern what the truth is. This extends to our current level of information saturation in the age of MySpace, YouTube, and the blogosphere and how these alternative sources may, in fact, provide more truth, or at least more information to inform the bigger picture. This commentary is informed in the film by eyewitnesses who upload their home videos for the world to see and then comparing that with what the media is reporting on the news, in addition to the first-hand experiences of our band of survivors.

With this film, Romero is taking us back to the start of the zombie outbreak/epidemic. This is not a sequel to Land of the Dead so much as it is a story that is occurring simultaneously with the events of Night of the Living Dead. As the story begins, we see a news report from a home where a murder had just taken place, only to have the victims rise up and attack the EMTs. This introduces us to the start of zombie menace, informing the audience of its place, similar to the way in which prior sequels showed us the increasing spread of the living dead right from the beginning.

The scene shifts to a group of college students making a horror movie for their film class. While shooting, they hear the reports of dead returning to life. Of course, they dismiss these reports, but still feel the need to get home. Upon discovering the campus empty, the group pile into a Winnebago and head off for their homes.

Among their number is Jason Creed (Joshua Close), the director of the zombie film whose first love is documentary film. You can probably guess where this is heading. Jason chooses to document their exodus from the school, journey home, and everything in between. This leads to the interesting pull of the camera versus helping friends when the dead pop into frame.

The movie is not entirely successful, as some of the dialogue is quite lame and the performances are, at times, wooden and entirely unconvincing (particularly the teacher who happens to be with them). However, where the performances let the audience down, the presentation is quite fascinating. In particular, I like how the film is not presented as "found footage"; rather it is an edited work put together by one of the survivors to show the "truth" of the situation with the intention to scare stated right up front. The film within the film is not presented solely as what Jason shot, but also footage from another camera in the group as well as security camera footage.

Audio/Video. The tech specs are fine. The video is crisp and clear, the colors are a bit to the washed out side, but this seems to be a byproduct of the gimmick. The audio is also fine. There is nothing to really complain about in how the film is presented. It is a nice transfer.

Extras. This Dimension Extreme release has a some bonus material included.

  • Commentary. This track features Romero, DP Adam Swica, and editor Michael Doherty. Romero dominates the track and they have plenty of information to share with regard to their short shooting schedule, Romero's views towards performance versus purpose, the fact that this takes place back at the beginning, all of the editing cheats, and more. It is a good track with little in the way of lulls.
  • For the Record. This is a feature length documentary on the making of the film; it is broken into five parts: "Master of the Dead: Writer/Director George A Romero," "Into the Camera: The Cast," "You Look Dead: Make-up Effects," "A New Spin on Death: Visual Effects," and "A World Gone Mad: Photography and Design." There is a lot of good information in here. There is some nice info on the effects and make-up, always interesting to see. (80 minutes total)
  • The Roots. George discusses where he is coming from for this film and how it goes back to the roots of the series. (2 minutes)
  • The First Week. A look at the first week of principal photography, the trouble with rain, the general excitement on the set, and the fun in being a zombie. (4.5 minutes)
  • Familiar Voices. This looks at some of the famous people who made voice cameos. The sessions were recorded over phone lines. This presents three of the sessions, they were for Guillermo Del Toro (Hellboy, Pan's Labyrith), Simon Pegg (Shawn of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), and Stephen King (The Stand). There are others, including some clips taken from the original Night of the Living Dead. (5 minutes)
  • MySpace Contest Winners. During the film's promotion, there a contest held in conjunction with MySpace for amateur filmmakers to create a zombie film. The winner was selected by Romero himself. The grand prize winner and four first place finishers are included on the disk.
    • The Final Day by Paul DelVecchio. This is the grand prize winning short. This is a good film. It centers on a man desperately looking for help in the midst of a zombie outbreak. He finds help, or does he? (3 minutes)
    • Deader Living Through Chemistry by Kern Saxton. A group of friends argue about what to do about one of their own who is turning into a zombie. (3 minutes)
    • Opening Night of the Living Dead by Shalena Oxley-Butler. I really liked this comedic take on the living dead. What would it be like if zombies went to the movies? (3 minutes)
    • & Teller by Teller and Ezekial Zabrowski. This droll short did not really do much for me. It centers on zombies in Vegas and the shooting of Penn Jillette. (3 minutes)
    • Run for Your Life by Jesse Blanchard. This is another comedic take as a couple of guys out for a run stumble across a flock of zombies and they have to, you know, run for their lives. (1.5 minutes)
  • Character Confessionals. These are pretty interesting. They were originally recorded to be in the film, but did not make the final cut. Similar to those bits on MTV's Real World, the characters talk directly to the camera as they try to come to grips with what is going on. (20.5 minutes)

Bottom line. This is a good movie. The concept and execution are good, the zombie effects are first rate, and the cumulative effect is quite interesting. What these survivors have to go through, the effects on their psyche, their struggles to wrap their minds around what is going on, all effective. If only the dialogue and acting were better this could have been among the classics. Still, it is very much worth your time.

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