Zombie-movie legend George Romero is rightly acclaimed for injecting humor and social consciousness into horror films. But there's a big difference between making a kick-ass zombie movie with a trenchant sociopolitical subtext, and making a dreary, didactic film about the ethics and politics of journalism and non-fiction filmmaking that just happens to have some zombies in it. With his latest undead opus, the self-consciously low-fi Diary Of The Dead, Romero set out to make the first kind of film, but ended up making the second.
A zombie movie for the MySpace/TMZ/YouTube age, when anyone with a camera phone and a website can play citizen journalist, Diary follows a group of callow, poorly differentiated college film students as they flee a zombie infestation. But one budding auteur takes time out of escaping certain death to document the whole miserable experience with his trusty video camera for a documentary called The Death Of Death. Diary asks some compelling questions about documentarians' responsibility to the people they're chronicling. Then it asks them again and again and again, wasting scores of valuable brain-munching opportunities in the process.
The film gets off to a fantastic start, with terrific scares and big laughs, at least some of which involve the Amish. But the horror and comedy in Romero's frustratingly uneven mockumentary eventually gives way to earnest hand-wringing over the immorality of documenting tragic events from an ostensibly objective distance, much of it conveyed via overwrought voiceover narration. Much of the appeal of first-person subjective horror films like Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project lies in their brash immediacy, in the sense that they're chronicling dark deeds and unspeakable horror as they happen, more or less in real time. Whereas Dead's ponderous voiceover distances the audience from the horror onscreen, placing it safely in the past and draining away its urgency. As in the more successful Land Of The Dead, Romero makes an admirable attempt to update his beloved franchise for contemporary audiences. But this time out, his heavy-handed intellectual concerns get in the way of a perfectly good fright flick.