Much has changed in zombie-dom since George Romero created his seminal '60s classic Night of the Living Dead — at least on the technical side. Zombies now look more realistic and CGI makes populating your landscape easy with an even scarier quantity of zombies. And who would have guessed that the ultimate zombie evolution would see lightning-fast reflexes that allow them to chase down victims with Herculean speed. Whether these things have furthered the zombie flick genre is debatable, but it sure looks cool. But some things change and some don't. A great zombie flick ain't all blood and gore. Besides slurpin' intestine and gnawin' liver chunks, zombies make great metaphors for a myriad of other ideas — colonialism, racism, consumerism (or insert your own 'ism' here) — and that's why Romero's zombies have always walked tall and reigned supreme. The plot of Diary is simple. It begins with a small crew of college film students and their boozy professor, shooting a horror film in the Pennsylvania woods. Their shooting is cut short when they start hearing news stories on the radio about the dead coming back to life. Some of them are skeptical — who the hell believes the news these days? Still, they pack up their Winnebago and hit the road hoping to find loved ones safe at home. What they find is something wholly different, captured by student director Jason (Josh Close), who tellingly observes, "If it's not on camera, it's not like it really happened." Romero exploits this film-within-a-film, life-imitating-art device well.
And, no, Diary of the Dead isn't a reimagining of his first film, but it may be in part inspired by what surrounded it. See, the sexagenarian Romero has (rightfully) developed a distrust of all media and a fascination with blogs and video sharing sites. Diary taps into how our lives have come to depend on technology, particularly how we get news about the world. It also comments how we no longer think for ourselves — often relying on Internet opinion instead — and how our voyeuristic tendencies and what we see, real or fake, alters our perception of everything around us. Diary even suggests that a life lived off-camera for some is, somehow, less real. None of this is to suggest that Romero slacked on the gore here, or the black humor. If you think you've seen every imaginable way a zombie can be murdered, think again. The body count diffuses the social commentary, which, at times, feels a bit heavy-handed; Romero's struggle to keep his zombies socially relevant causes the flick to lag in spots.
Diary finds Romero returning to smaller budget indie filmmaking after a disappointing studio experience, his last film, Land of the Dead. Good thing — going back to his roots has re-energized the man. His zombies may still lumber about like many of us — hallelujah — but his ideas and filmmaking skills are as agile and smart as ever.
Paul Knoll writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].