George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead
As anybody who read my First Look of Diary of the Dead can attest, I walked out of the theatre with a lot of venom for the movie. It seemed that George Romero had taken the zombie concept and “rebooted” it for a generation he knew very little about; in the mix, he’d created a really bad movie. On the train home, I pondered: Had the Godfather of all zombie movies lost his touch? Arriving home that night, I sat down and wrote a scorching review. Icons of Fright posted it, and I thought I was done with Diary forever. If Romero was not willing to close the door on his zombie films, I most certainly was.
But when Diary came out on DVD, I reread my First Look. Embarrassingly, I realized it was a poorly written and badly edited piece, a work of raw anger that the film perhaps may not have deserved. I knew as I read the First Look again that I owed it to myself, Romero, and most of all Icons readers to look at the movie with fresh eyes and a clear perspective. I owed the film, in essence, A Second Look.
Let me be clear before I discuss details: Diary of the Dead is still not a good flick. It continues to suffer from many of the problems I addressed in my First Look: the acting is beyond bad; the movie is too intent on being funny at times; the characters for the most part are a dull group, and even the tolerable ones become unlikable because of their obsession with the camera; the dialogue is atrocious; worst, the film’s biggest sin remains its sledgehammer preachiness. But it’s not just the message that gets overstated. I realized Romero seems too intent on using dialogue to overstate everything. One scene makes this glaringly apparent. When Debra and the group reach her family home, she reaches into a potted plant next to the front door and says, “They always hide a key.” Does she really need to explain this detail to the group, or the film’s audience? As a master filmmaker with 40 years experience, Romero should understand that film is a visual medium, even if his filmmaking characters don’t.
Another thing that struck me while watching the DVD was something I mentioned in my First Look: the lack of a strong black male. Yes, the students meet up with a militant black who’s leading a survivalist group. But his time onscreen is too fleeting. I think Romero would’ve made a much more interesting film if he had followed this group and its leader, than the group of fledgling filmmakers he chose as his protagonists. I could have routed for that group. As with much of the movie, this seems like another opportunity squandered.
Even with all that said, I didn’t hate Diary the second time around. Sure, it wasn’t good, but it wasn’t worthy of venom either. Romero simply took a new approach that I don’t appreciate. And I’m not quite sure who this approach was meant to please. Older fans of Romero’s zombie legacy will be put off by the younger cast and the focus on technology. The younger fans are the very bloggers and Myspacers that Romero attacks with the film. In the end, he may end up satisfying no one.
The nice package of extras that Dimensions Extreme put together will satisfy fans, however. Foremost is the commentary. Considering the broad swipes the film takes at technology, how suitably ironic is it that Romero sat down in Paris, France to make his comments, while DP Adam Swica and editor Michael Doherty collaborate on the track from Toronto, Canada? Romero is always a joy for me to listen to, as he’s such an intellectual and a down to earth guy at the same time. Here, he discusses his critiques of society, as well as the ingenuity needed to make a low budget movie. His social views come across much better in the commentary than in the film itself. He even got me to appreciate the practicality of CG blood effects, though I still don’t like the effects themselves. Swica and Doherty are a lot less prominent than Romero on the track, but this is really Romero’s baby, so it’s forgivable.
Character Confessionals differs from most movies’ extras. Four of the students sit down individually to discuss their reactions to the zombie apocalypse, as if they’re in the middle of it. The First Week covers filmmaker’s visit to the set during the film’s first week of production. It’s brief and doesn’t offer much. The Roots offers Romero’s rebooting of his Dead series. It’s about 2 minutes long; at that length, it can’t help but be shallow. Familiar Voices offers the uncut recording of three celebrities whose voices appear in the film as those of newscasters. It’s a neat little piece. Also, the winning filmmakers of Romero’s Myspace contest are on the disc. I again question just how seriously anybody can take Romero’s critiquing of the media age if he uses a Myspace to promote the film.
Then there’s For the Record. The disc breaks this doc down into 5 pieces. Master of the Dead is a 13 minute discussion of Romero’s work on the film. It includes the film’s producers, and Romero himself. George discusses why he returned to small budget filmmaking with Diary. He originally wanted to shoot it for $250,000 with a student crew. He also attempted to adopt Diary to the television series format. I wonder how different that would have been from the final product. It’s an interesting view into Romero’s mindset. Into the Camera takes a look at the cast. None of these people interested me, though they’re all complimentary to Romero. You Look Dead and A New “Spin” on Death look at the special make up and visual effects, respectively. These pieces drag on for much longer than they should; the highlights are the comments of Greg Nicotero, especially the anecdote on why he’s playing a zombie doctor. A World Gone Mad discusses the logistical problems of photographing a film with only hand held cameras and very few cuts. It’s an intriguing piece about overcoming the hurdles of filming like this. All in all, the disc boasts a comprehensive, if uneven, set of extras.
In the pantheon of Romero’s Dead saga, Diary of the Dead was never destined to be a classic. Maybe over time it will find its audience, if only because it’s got Romero’s name on it. But exactly who that audience is, I can’t say. I can say that it didn’t deserve the scathing critique I gave it in my First Look. But a Second Look confirmed its many problems. Perhaps Romero’s next look at the zombie universe will offer better.
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