After the disappointment that was 2005’s Land of the Dead, a film with too many ideas but not enough power, I had mixed feelings going into Diary. On the one hand, it’s impossible to ignore the biting criticisms that pursue all of Romero’s later films, and yet, on the other hand, Diary sees a return to the indie zombie movie (independently produced, the budget here is $13 million dollars less than its direct predecessor), which in turn suggests a return to the raw and brave ideas present in Night. However, despite this being a passion project for Romero – a film that does away with cheap Hollywood thrills in favour of politics and social commentary – the results are underwhelming to say the least.
Rather than be a direct sequel to Land, Diary goes back to the time of the initial outbreak, and according to Romero is a “rejigging off the myth”. The entire film is narrated by Michelle Morgan as Debra, the girlfriend of University film student Jason (Joshua Close), and together they record the apocalyptic events on hand-held cameras. Released in the United States in February of 2008, Diary is one of many found footage films to have graced our screens, with REC, Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity all following soon after. Unfortunately, this means that, watching it in 2013, its style feels labored. I would even go as far to say that the shots are too steady considering that these are meant to be scenes shot by people on the run from flesh-eating zombies. Debra’s incessant, dreary moralising is both tacky and exhausting, and when paired with slow-mo effects, the results are cringeworthy.
I get what Romero was trying to do with this, but to “get it” is not enough. Yes, the messages are adventurous: the film delves into the dark side of humanity by exploring our need to document and watch, rather than help and take action. However, its questions of morality and ethics are simply repeated too often. Interestingly, Jason’s obsession with keeping a record of events, and Debra’s disgust at his enthusiasm for filming everything, can be linked to one of Sarah and John’s conversations in Day of the Dead, the the third film in Romero’s original trilogy. Sarah wishes to stay in the underground bunker and keep track of her experiments, something which John doesn’t understand (excuse the long quote):
John: We don’t believe in what you’re doing here, Sarah. Hey, you know what they keep down here in this cave? Man, they got the books and the records of the top 100 companies. They got the Defense Department budget down here. And they got the negatives for all your favorite movies. They got microfilm with tax return and newspaper stories. They got immigration records, census reports, and they got the accounts of all the wars and plane crashes and volcano eruptions and earthquakes and fires and floods and all the other disasters that interrupted the flow of things in the good ole U.S. of A. Now what does it matter, Sarah darling? All this filing and record keeping? We ever gonna give a shit? We even gonna get a chance to see it all?
What this quote sadly proves is the redundancy of Diary of the Dead itself. The film uses its zombie epidemic as nothing more than a stage on which to ask a bunch of questions which have already been asked a thousand times before, and proved unanswerable. Sarah responds to John’s rant by saying “what I’m doing… is all there’s left to do“. Documenting is what keeps her feeling sane, and yet at the end of the film, she must accept life post-apocalypse (whilst still doing some minor “record keeping” in the form of a makeshift calender). Jason and Debra’s philosophical ramblings are 22 years late.
Ultimately, I feel as though Diary could have done with being part of a series of online shorts exploring the outbreak from different angles. As an hour-and-a-half long film it is a struggle to sit through, not helped at all by poor acting (Scott Wentworth’s character Andrew feels like a “Giles from Buffy” impersonation gone wrong) and a serious lack of scares or shocks. Not once did I jump with fright, and if there’s any one reason to hate a zombie movie, it’s that it doesn’t terrify you in the slightest.
FINAL VERDICT: ★ 1/2