Contains mild spoilers.
Three years on the from fourth big budget instalment in George Romero's Dead series, Diary of the Dead is an altogether different kettle of fish. Gone is the backing of a big studio and lavish budget that comes with it, and what we're left with is a tighter, more personal story focused on a small band of survivors attempting to make sense of a world falling apart. Produced by Romero-Grunwald Productions, formed by Romero and his friend Peter GrunwaldIt, and filmed in four months with a modest budget of around $2m, Diary of the Dead is not only a return to the franchises roots in terms of scale but also a return to the zombie origin story; following the outbreak as it first unfolds. Romero called this film 'a rejigging of the myth' and a break from the previous four films which followed (albeit loosely) a linear timeline.
Loosely put the film follows a group of film studies students and their faculty tutor from the University of Pittsburgh as they attempt to escape the city and get back to their family and loved ones whilst more importantly feeding their desire to provide a truthful, up to date video record of what is really happening against a backdrop of perceived misinformation and mass-crowd control being broadcast by the main stream press.
Romero has always imbued his Dead films full of the particular zeitgeist of the time. Mass consumerism, racism, state control have all appeared to help shape and define his previous offerings and here in the late 2000s he has turned his attention to the power of communication in the modern age. The film looks at how the perceived power of controlling the message is transitioning from the state and mainstream media machine to the internet and personal bloggers who can cut through the propaganda to provide genuine personal accounts without distorting the story. Romero always likes to take the stance that the individual whether it's against an authoritarian state or repressive ideology will always eventually come to question the status-quo and force, or evolve a way to break free from it. The zombies are always the metaphor of this control and the survivors are always a mix of those who unconditionally accept what they're being told or how they're being told to live, or are struggling and actively fighting against it.
From the off we can tell this is a departure from Romero's classical film style as we hear a narrator beginning to explain the accuracy and truth of the real life documentation we are about to witness. Like Rec and as made famous by Blair Witch Project the film is entirely told from the perspective of captured film taken by both Jason Creed (Joshua Close) and later his girlfriend Debra Moynihan (Michelle Morgan). Listening to main stream media and watching as stories of how the dead are coming back to life Jason takes it initially upon himself to document what is really taking place and the film follows the students as they stumble from pillar to post struggling to work out what to do or where to go whilst trying to do the right and get a truthful account of what is really taking place on ground level to a wider global audience.
It's Romero and we know what we're going to get from our undead friends and as one watches the zombies arrive on mass to swarm the barn or broken down camper van you could easily think you watching his first film from 1968. There's no running and no driving ambulances; but there are imaginative zombie dispatches to go alongside the multitude of genre-staple headshots. There's also a nod back to the 'no more room in hell' premise, as the dead come back to life regardless of whether they've been bitten, and whilst hell isn't directly mentioned, Romero has stayed true to his original vision and provides no explanation as to why any of this might be happening. Despite the limited budget Romero employed a lot of CGI for the few more open shots, watched on by the group on televisions and monitors. They all successfully integrate with the style of the film and provide timely juxtaposition the claustrophobic of the small band with what is happening to the world at large.
It is another great Romero zombie film, thought provoking, and well produced but it's not without its faults. Unfortunately and I've accused Romero of this before; the characters, both main and side are all a little flat and uninteresting. Their reactions to certain situations are at times a bit bland, cliché or even downright woefully stupid, and at no time when any of them were killed did I find myself actually caring that much. I also guess, and it's part of the point; remember it's about the art darling, as their faculty advisor Andrew Maxwell (Scott Wentworth) would put it, but those times when the act of making the documentary were taking precedent over personal and friends safety, it was hard to think of the young students as anything other than douchebags and way too full of themselves.
Overall it's clever and slots nicely into Romero's zombie series. There are many great scenes and some great ambience but it does fall a little flat on the whole. Despite the criticisms though it certainly deserves a place in any zombie, horror, or film studies student's film collection, 7/10.