A full 40 years after changing modern horror movies with his landmark Night of the Living Dead, George Romero has gone back to the beginning with his fifth installment, Diary of the Dead.
Night of the Living Dead was followed by Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), and Land of the Dead (2005), each volume pushing the apocalyptic story of cannibalistic zombies that Romero began in the Pennsylvania hills and forwarded into grander, more paranoiac areas.
Diary of the Dead, by contrast, is a restart. It's another origin story and one that returns to the zombie ground zero of the Pittsburgh outskirts. The film opens, after an introductory bit of found news-camera footage of an initial zombie sighting, with a University of Pittsburgh student film crew deep in the woods making a mummy movie called The Death of Death. When the dead really do come back, this student fiction morphs into an on-the-fly documentary, and the conceit of Diary of the Dead is that we're watching this documentary.
Shown entirely through the subjective lens of this student film crew (Romero again uses a crew of unknown actors), Diary of the Dead is an oh-so-modern update of the DIY spirit of Romero's original Night of the Living Dead. But the other horror classic it evokes isn't from the Romero canon: A decade after The Blair Witch Project tapped into the homemade horror aesthetic of Night of the Living Dead, Romero finally reciprocates.
Of course, The Blair Witch Project made a strategy of resisting visceral content. Zombie movies are, in part, about gore and coming up with new ways to off the walking dead. Diary of the Dead is no different from Romero's other zombie classics in this regard.
Romero's real interest here isn't in the bloody particulars of man-on-zombie warfare but on the paradoxically active passivity of an intensely mediated age. In this vein, Romero not only presents Diary of the Dead through the lens of a film crew that chooses to wield its cameras rather than drop them when the boogeyman emerges, but engages in a full range of modern communication modes. The radio and TV reports through which earlier Romero protagonists got info on the zombie plague are here supplemented by websites, cell phones, text messages, viral videos, home movies, camera phones, surveillance footage, etc.
But, as astutely as Romero deploys all this new technology, he doesn't celebrate it. Diary of the Dead wonders what happens when the juice is lost — when you run out of gas or battery power or electricity — before concluding, ruefully, that "It's all just noise." Even more than that, Diary of the Dead wonders whether more and more strains of media increase a need to see, show, and comment along with a reluctance to act. This idea is as close as the film comes to commenting on recent disasters from Katrina to Iraq, but here the critique ("Are we even worth saving?" one character wonders toward the end) is about more than how easily mankind slips into violence and mayhem. Rather, it's Romero's most self-reflexive film ever. With abundant riffs on camera-as-gun metaphors ("keep shooting," "this thing is too easy to use"), Diary of the Dead might be the most unsparing cinematic connection of voyeurism to violence since the 1960 classic Peeping Tom.
Diary of the Dead
Opening Friday, March 7th
Studio on the Square and Malco Cordova