I suppose that there’s a sort of poetic turn in acknowledging that the man who birthed an entire 40-year-long film genre is the man who ultimately killed it. When the genre is “zombie apocalypse,” well, there you have irony.
“George Romero’s Diary of the Dead” is the fifth and likely final installment to the famous “Dead” film series Romero created, and, well, hoo boy.
There was some guarded hope among Romero’s fans about this movie, most of it resting on the news that it would be an independent film, one of a very few to be free of studio meddling. Romero, after all, created three cult classics that spawned an industry of imitators, so surely this would be another one for the horror history books.
However, the problem of actually seeing Romero’s unfettered vision on the big screen is that you don’t quite know which alternative is true, and which is worse: Did he find free rein only after the genre was totally played out and there was simply nothing left to say, or is it possible that studio interference actually made movies better?
I suspect both. “Diary of the Dead” suffers most from writing bad enough to spark a debate with a friend over whether it’s merely bad or George Lucas awful. Romero’s signature with these zombie flicks is to use the story structure for social commentary and satire, and here he bludgeons our delicious brains with it. Nothing made clear from subtext passes without dramatic pronouncement, no pronouncement is too dramatic and no character is too three-dimensional to avoid making dramatic pronouncements. The whole thing is a caricature, and perhaps that’s what Romero was going for, but if so, he failed at even that.
You’ve got your bubbly blonde Texas babe who actually says “Don’t mess with Texas,” your perpetually drunken British professor who spouts pseudo-Shakespearian nuggets of profundity, your absolute wiener of a film student and another boatload of stereotypes all filming a documentary about the fall of mankind. On the road, they will meet with other stereotypes and have adventures.
Do they ask questions? Emphatically yes! The same ones over and over, in fact! Do they make judgments? Again, the same ones repeated for effect! Do you understand the point? Oh boy, do you!
Paradoxically, what is simultaneously encouraging and maddening about “Diary” is that you can see the sort of movie Romero was trying to make while watching him utterly fail with every frame. The film he wanted to make would have been a decent one — not a great one, exactly, but as I said, zombie movies as they currently exist are played out — but a sturdy mockumentary of humanity eating itself. Watching that movie in my delicious brain while seeing the banal failure on the screen was disheartening, of course, mitigated somewhat by visuals that are mostly pretty good and actors who did what little they could with their lines.
On reflection, the “Dead” series ends the way the world usually does in Romero’s films: no big bang, just the gears grinding to a halt, good men falling apart and somebody getting his guts ripped out. Sadly apropos, and come to think of it, maybe what he intended all along. Now, George, just remember you got to shoot this one in the head before you bury it.