Coming soon from The Weinstein Co.
Nick Alachiotis as Fred
Matt Birman as Zombie Trooper
George Buza as Biker
Joshua Close as Jason
Laura DeCarteret as Bree
Joe Dinicol as Eliot
Amy Ciupak Lalonde as Tracy
Directed by George A. Romero
From a horror lover’s point of view, one of the most anticipated movies in the Toronto Film Festival’s Midnight Madness track had to be George Romero’s latest zombie offering “Diary of the Dead.” As the filmmaker who single-handedly launched the zombie genre in 1968 with “Night of the Living Dead,” he’s returned to that genre a number of times in the past few decades, but this is a very different beast from the studio-funded “Land of the Dead.”
Romero’s fifth zombie movie lives by the pretension that it’s a documentary called “The Death of Death” made up of found footage, mostly shot by a film student named Jason. It’s an interesting premise, sure, and it was just as interesting when it was called “The Blair Witch Project,” but Romero uses it to comment on the YouTube/blogger generation that feels the need to film everything rather than doing something about what they’re filming. While it’s an interesting thought to see Romero’s classic zombies shown in this different light, just the fact that Romero feels the need to rehash something done before in order to keep the genre fresh makes it hard to enjoy the results, also because it allows for some seriously lazy filmmaking with the excuse that it’s a student film shot on the fly.
There’s just as little explanation for the dead returning to life here as in other zombie flicks, opening on a newscast of a multiple homicide where the victims decide they’re not quite dead yet. From there, a voice-over introduces the film and explains how it was made from the footage shot in the days after the first zombie attacks, all of it edited together with music to “make it scarier.” In some ways, it harks back to the lower budget days of Romero’s original “Night,” but it’s shot very primitively using shaky handheld cameras and footage from conveniently-placed security cams.
Every once in a while, it cuts to fake news footage to show what’s going on in the rest of the world and the ominous voice-over asks questions that furthers Romero’s use of the zombie genre to explore the world around us. Unfortunately, these ideas are explored using the most generic and mundane horror cliches imaginable, essentially following a group of college students, each fulfilling a mandatory horror stereotype, as they try to survive in a world where getting killed doesn’t mean you stay dead. Along for the road trip is an alcoholic professor with a British accent, who’s there mainly to spout off pretentious anecdotes about why life sucks to his apt pupils. Mostly, the writing is awful and the acting is atrocious, almost on a par with something we might see in the After Dark Horrorfest (yes, that bad) rather than what one might expect from a horror pioneer with four decades of horror films under his belt.
At least “Land” was deliberately fun, but “Diary” takes itself far too seriously, the only real humor being a couple of jabs at fast zombies like the ones in the “Dawn of the Dead” remake, which was far scarier and more entertaining than this. (The one comic relief character, “Samuel the Amish,” is there and gone before you can even really appreciate him.) At one point, the kids encounter a group of military types, who proceed to rob them of all their belongings, except oddly leaving them with both of their expensive video cameras. It otherwise would have been a much shorter film because the group wouldn’t have gotten to the isolated mansion where they’re surrounded and picked off one-by-one by the zombies.
It’s never quite convincing that anyone would be so dedicated to filming all of the gruesome zombie killings, rather than dropping the camera and running for their life or better yet, arming themselves with a weapon instead. It’s also never quite believable that this found footage was assembled by a film student, since it’s so masterfully edited together more like a horror movie than a documentary. No, I never thought I’d see the day where I fault a zombie movie for being unrealistic.
If you’ve seen any other zombie movie, either by Romero or those he’s influenced, than “Diary” is fairly predictable and obviously more of a showcase for the gory make-up effects, which do show us a few things we haven’t seen, but they’re shot in such a shabby way, they’re not nearly as effective. None of the gruesome deaths make-up for the fact that Romero is retreading old ground merely to appease the rabid fans. With so much better quality zombie storytelling out there in other media like Robert Kirkman’s entertaining zombie comics, “Diary of the Dead” makes it obvious that its time to put a bullet in the brain of this tired genre. If this was Romero’s attempt to take the first shot than it’s a disappointing experiment that pales in comparison to his previous zombie films.
For more of Douglas’ reports from the Toronto International Film Festival, click here.