Above: Michelle Morgan (center left) leads a motley group of film students during a zombie outbreak.
Yet another very good American movie that vanished from theaters in the blink of an eye but will be found enduring on on the DVD shelf is George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead. The lean, but robust umpteenth entry in the director's decade-spanning zombie series, Diary of the Dead, on its modest scale, gets it all right: broad but brawny characterizations, stalwart, plucky survival, a healthy dose of social criticism, and uncomfortable, necessary violence.
On paper, the concept seems a bit much. A group of film students are in the middle of a shoot (of a mummy film, no less) when the first zombie outbreak takes place, and as they hole up in their R.V. and try and drive to safety the director insists on documenting their body count and their survival. Name-checking MySpace, blogs, video uploads, and digital democracy (not to mention information overload in a land of censorship and control of mainstream media), and most forcefully expressed in the form Diary of the Dead takes as a documentary made by the filmmakers, the film's M.O. seems to be to question the ethics, usefulness, and effect of constant media surveillance. Yet despite these broad, and by no means new ideas, Romero's movie is nevertheless not nearly as corny in execution as Cloverfield or as heavy (and ham) handed as Redacted, the two 2007 movies it most resembles by taking a form—video—it intrinsically both criticizes and praises.
Romero uses these topical forms as a springboard for narrative movement and story conflict, and less as an obvious broadside against media representation. In fact, Diary of the Dead is remarkably ambiguous about the benefit or detriment of the survivors filming their experiences; the director talks about a historical record, the video as education (how to kill and survive), and viral popularity, meanwhile the characters in the film are variously repulsed by and magnetically attracted to the ease and naturalness of shooting everything. (This pun is something the film delights in. When a world is overrun by zombies and you are a filmmaker, indeed you must shoot everything. This leads to the film's best ironic final line, said by one fatally bitten character, handing someone his camera: "shoot me.") The story and the theme go hand-in-hand: modest scale, if not a bit weak, but compellingly propelled by digitally silken nighttime deaths, and as much, if not more, turmoil and argument over filming things than over killing and being killed by things.
Throughout, as with the chunkier Land of the Dead (2004), the scares of horror are downplayed for more pragmatic concerns of survival and unrest within the group. No one seems especially shocked or desperate over the zombie outbreak; rather, they seem just monumentally dismayed at this particular turn the world as recently taken. Maybe that's why the film's narrative and visual 'gimmick' seems so ungimmicky: when zombie attacks becomes almost everyday, documenting your life doesn't seem that unnatural. But to make sure one doesn't think Romero is moving towards a De Palma-like obviousness in his form, Diary of the Dead's script is marvelously funny (for better or for worse, the film is more clever than it is thrilling), not to mention canny. The film itself is titled "The Death of Death" and is the re-edited and re-scored version of the footage resulting from the film crew's tribulations in the Pennsylvanian countryside—scary music and intercut archive footage added "for effect."
Driving this slim but terrific vehicle is Michelle Morgan, in a performance of incredulous, humane perseverance that unifies the rest of the young student gang made up mostly of amusing caricatures. It seems only in disrespected genre cinema that American actors are still able to craft characters and carve out narrative space and power for themselves. Who would have thought we would rely on George A. Romero for a film not only respecting the digital medium but playfully and beautifully grappling with it? Like much neglected cinema, Diary of the Dead is missing a great deal, but what it has, it has in spades, moxie perhaps above all else.