If you're going into Diary of the Dead expecting something on par with George Romero's seminal Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, you're setting yourself up for disappointment. If you're going in hoping for a redemption of the series following the decidedly average Land of the Dead, your hopes are well-founded.
Diary is a major improvement over Land in nearly every way. Free of studio constraints, Romero is able once again to infuse his own personal flavor. This is without question a George Romero film. Yet it still manages to feel completely different from all the others--a feat actually accomplished by all five entries in the series. Romero had taken his timeline as far as it could go, and by returning to the beginning, he thankfully shifts gears from the often perplexing Land--in which an overly cynical Romero expected too much sympathy for his zombies, and instead of lamenting over humanity's inability to save itself, seemed to be saying that the world is a better place in the hands of the undead.
By stripping his mythos down, the director also delivers in another area in which Land was alarmingly lacking: scares. This movie is suspenseful as hell, and reminds us why Romero is among the very best at creating an atmosphere of gnawing dread. A scene in a darkened warehouse, as well as the film's climactic moments inside a mansion, are strong examples.
Many critics, and even fans, are pointing to the acting as the movie's major downfall. To those I pose the question: Have you ever actually seen a George Romero movie? As much as we love them, time and nostalgia have sweetened our appraisals of the dramatic performances in them. There isn't a single actor whose work is nearly as bad as anything on display in, say, Day of the Dead, which is filled with often laughably awful dramatics despite its brilliance in other areas. I won't say there are any particular standouts in Diary either, with the possible exception of the world-weary film professor played by Scott Wentworth, who is given some of the best lines in Romero's intelligent, if somewhat overstated script.
It's a testament to the continued effectiveness of G.A.R.'s satirical powers that I found myself actively disagreeing with his social viewpoints throughout much of the movie. I kept feeling that by railing against the modern information age, the 67-year-old auteur comes off as a bit of a reactive curmudgeon, taking on some of the close-minded qualities of characters he might have lampooned 20 or 30 years ago. Yet I'm grateful to him for making such a thoughtful horror movie, one filled with so much detail that it will stand up to the repeated viewings I'll surely subject it to once it comes out on DVD.
There's also a surprising amount of humor on display, balanced perfectly with the grave and weighty tone. We get some snarky digs at modern-day fast-moving zombies that will surely please Romero purists. Plus the brilliant appearance of what can only be described as the greatest and most unlikely zombie-slayer since Father McGruder kicked ass for the Lord in Dead Alive. You'll never look at Historic Williamsburgh the same.
As for you gorehounds out there, you might want to lower your expectations. I was actually pretty surprised and a little disappointed by the amount of restraint shown in this area. There isn't the requisite "zombie banquet" scene, nor is there a single dismemberment in the whole picture. It's even more restrained than the studio-produced Land of the Dead, which is not at all what I expected. Don't get me wrong, I pride myself on being a cerebral horror fan, but when I go to see a George Romero zombie flick I expect to see some lovingly shot organ-munching.
Not that the film isn't without its share of "interesting kills" for those who go in for that sort of thing. In particular, there's an ingenious bit of business in which one of the protagonists bonks a ghoul over the head with a jar of acid, then watches as the chemical slowly eats through the creature's skull and destroys its brain. Good stuff.
There are clever tips of the hat to previous Dead flicks throughout, including a snippet of newscaster dialogue from Night that can be heard in the background at one point. There's also a scene in an apartment complex which directly conjures up the tenement scene in Dawn--and the impact is just as disturbing. This is by far the picture's grimmest moment.
Unfortunately, the homemade video gimmick on which the premise is hung doesn't always hold up. There are times in which it does feel a bit contrived, and the idea that the student filmmakers would add incidental music in post-production--especially to a scene in which one of the characters encounters her own reanimated loved ones--is kind of ludicrous. The movie is also too heavily narrated, with certain things overexplained, thus taking away from some of the visual impact (especially true during a jarring final scene that would've worked ten times better without narration.)
Now let me get the inevitable comparisons out of the way. Night of the Living Dead has always been the most frightening of the bunch to me, and still is. Dawn of the Dead is the best film all-around thanks to its enjoyable combination of horror, emotional resonance, quality filmmaking and commentary. Although Day of the Dead works better than Diary of the Dead as a horror movie, Diary is a higher quality film and a better overall package. And well, you know where I stand with regards to Land of the Dead.
It's a shame that virtually no money or effort was put into marketing this movie. I had to travel from Connecticut to Manhattan to see it, and the theater didn't even have a lobby poster for the flick. If properly pushed, this quality pic would've definitely yielded far better box-office results than it has, as it is a cut above most of the horror fare out there. Unfortunately, as a result of the mishandling, it looks like Uncle George is destined for the direct-to-DVD market from here on in.
Apparently, when there's no more room in theaters, the dead will sit on the video shelf.