Naturally, his biggest impact has indeed been on Horror and it could be argued that without his independent success on Night of the Living Dead such followers as The Evil Dead and The Blair Witch Project are highly unlikely to have been made... at least not in the form we now have them in. Take note that Romero has (to date) directed seventeen gosh darned films and only five of them have been in the Zombie Horror genre. It's also noteworthy that the first film, Night of the Living Dead, was released in the Winter of Love: 1968; the second, Dawn of the Dead, a full disco decade later in 1978 (1979 in the USA); the third, Day of the Dead hit theatres like a ripe pomegranate in 1985, closing out what was long considered to be a trilogy. That is until the "Zombie Boom" of the early 2000s. A full twenty years after Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead slouched toward theatres (with major studio backing, no less) in the year of our Lord, 2005. In the overall Romero Scheme of Things, the fifth feature, Diary of the Dead took almost no time at all to be released. Having its premiere in September of 2007 (with a limited theatrical release in February of 2008), Diary of the Dead took barely over two years (the shortest span yet) after its predecessor to gain release.
And this is a very different kind of film.
The beauty of Romero's Zombastic films is that they're always about more than "just zombies". This is what most imitators forget, or completely miss, as they construct their "tributes" (read: Rip Offs). Beyond their social satire, dark humor and strange metaphor, Romero's Dead Flicks always have a timeless quality, which has made them all fit together into one solid, yet diverse, story even though made decades apart. Fashion aside, the stories in each of these films could have taken place at any old time.
That is, until Diary of the Dead.
Diary of the Dead is equally a sequel to the "Living Dead" films, a prequel to the "Living Dead" films and an out-of-continuity re-launch of the series. It's also the least timeless of the group being marked on every level with the timely branding of 2007/ 2008. It's as attached to today as Jan Brady's plaid pants were attached to the early '70s. It's still great.
George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead has been unfairly called "The Blair Zombie Project" and "Cloverfield with Zombies" due to its "Documentary" approach and "Cinéma vérité" camera work. Let me state that this style didn't start with The Blair Witch Project by any means, even in horror (see Cannibal Holocaust for an earlier example). Further, Cloverfield was so under-wraps until January of 2008 (four months after Diary's Film Festival debut) that a "cash in" is not only against what Romero stands for, but is also completely impossible, even in the Romeroverse.
The genesis for Diary of the Dead came from Romero's Studio experience with Land of the Dead. After the Studio experience, George felt pushed in the other direction toward a more "Guerilla Filmmaking" approach, much closer resembling Night of the Living Dead than Land of the Dead. Truly, aside from the undead walking around, it doesn't resemble anything he's done before. It was, as he put it, an experiment to "See if I still had the Chops!"
Good news, folks, sure as Voodoo is vexing, he does. It's a revealing conceit that Romero tells this story by putting a camera into the hands of (drumroll) an independent filmmaker. Joshua Close's Jason Creed is a film student from Penn State working on a cheap and experimental horror movie in the woods (nowehere near Burkittsville, pilgrims). We even get a big "Fuck You" to the also-ran Zombie film makers with a tongue-in-cheek condemnation of the "Zombies That Can Run" joke as Romero (through Creed) informs his cast that "Dead things can't run!" (I concur.)
The gang is about to learn this first hand as the "Zombie Crisis" starts during the filming of this little movie. Because he has all the equipment there, Jason decides that this is his "opportunity" to document everything that happens here. Virtually 100% of Diary of the Dead consists of a film-within-a-film called The Death of Death, the completed version of what is filmed over the next few days. Jason's girlfriend Deb (Michelle Morgan) narrates us through the proceedings in a sad-voiced remembrance of what they experienced. She quickly explains away much of what a critic or audience member might consider to be non-documentary oriented, telling us that she completed the editing on the film and added music in some places (meaning composer Norman Orenstein survived the holocaust) hoping to scare the audience into not making the same mistakes they did. A chilling omen indeed.
We see Jason continuing to act as "director" for the impending events, often having friends re-enter a room or re-state a line because he "didn't get it". This is true, in that what Jason doesn't film, we don't see, in true Mockumentary style. Luckily about a quarter of the way through, they obtain a second camera, allowing for an additional angle or separate perspective a lot of the time. This "filtered reality" helps Jason and (to an extent) the others stay sane in an increasingly insane world. To a greater extent, though, this drives the subjects of his film, his friends, away like nails on a virtual chalkboard. Deb starts to seem a lot more comfortable in the arms of Tony (Shawn Roberts), which must suck for J-Dawg worse than a Zombie Plague. It gets worse, however, as the unfiltered reality "enjoyed" by anyone not holding a camera becomes a little bit too real for comfort. Philip Riccio's Ridley tests the theory that any fortress is truly safe in Romero's universe as Amy Ciupak Lalonde's lovely Tracy tests the fates by remaining exactly the same person she was before the crisis as afterwards. The "Rodney King"-esque words of "PUT DOWN THE CAMERA AND HELP ME!" certainly spring to mind here.
Interestingly, unlike a lot of Cinema Verite directors out there, Romero realizes what "Documentary Style" means. Jason and his friends are presented as film students, a group very unlikely to act like idiots with a camera, zooming and re-focusing like mad, scratching their backs with the lens and playing badmitton with it just to simulate "Documentary Style". Yes, there are shaky camera movements here, but Romero never lets us, or his characters, forget that the job here is to document a "Diary of the Dead", not to show us what a landscape looks like by putting the camera on a slinky and shouting "BBOOIINNGG!!" In short, there is no Nausea Vision here. I brought Dramamine, I didn't need it.
Diary of the Dead is still very firmly set in Romero's Zombieverse, reboot or not. Newscasters (voiced by no less a friend-base than Stephen King, Simon Pegg, Quentin Tarantino, Guillermo Del Toro and Wes Craven) often read some of the same copy that we heard in the 1968 film, zombies behave the same way (and we're explained why to a degree). Further, we can pretty much tell where the film is going. That doesn't make Diary predictable, however, as the plot is secondary to the scenes themselves. Here Romero's surreal social satire is in full force with a scathing skewering of all kinds of things here, there and everywhere. I won't ruin it by attempting to name them all, but he's not exactly subtle in his commentary (though thankfully, he's never sanctimonious). At times Diary of the Dead can be laugh-out-loud hilarious. At others it can be chillingly frightening. Once in a while, Diary of the Dead is both hilarious and frightening at the same time... Satire, folks. See Romero's brief cameo as a cover-up cop for a prime example. Another is a simply classic twisting of the word "shoot" as both "fire a bullet" and "get this on camera". It's used enough to be funny as hell, but not enough to become tired, trite or tried.
While Romero's fifth entry does outshine most others like it (a candle to a Supernova), Diary of the Dead is still not perfect. For one thing, quite a lot of the time the actors (though generally quite good) really seem to be "acting". Sure a good bit of the time they do seem like real people reacting in a documentary setting, but in other cases they seem like actors following lines and cues. This could be written off as a further expansion of the "Filtered Reality" concept. The director directs, even when he can't control the world around him, the actors act, even when they're not on a set. Still, it's worth mentioning. Also, this could amount to the most dated of the Dead series. Technology is the biggest crutch of the people here, as it might be in any real world this fictional crisis could happen in. To fill in the gaps, the students download real-life footage from the internet both for their own edification and to inform the documentary audience. The use of cell phones, cell phone cameras and web cams, along with direct references to "YouTube" set this one aside as a very current motion picture. It would be hard to imagine the events of this film working as contemporaries to those of Night of the Living Dead, unless Ben was just seconds away from pulling out his iPhone and saying "Aw, that Lonelygirl15... she gets me every single... Oh, yeah... Zombies!", and George just didn't get it on camera. Does this work? Well, yes, it does, as it gives Uncle George yet another venue for social satire, plus it allows for footage to be used that wasn't taken from the two main cameras. Will it, like Night of the Living Dead, still stand up as well forty years after its release? I certainly think and hope so, but ask me again in forty years.
It would be almost criminal to second-guess this film too terribly much, as this is the most thoroughly ROMERO out of all of them, with the possible exception of the first. Night of the Living Dead was not properly copyrighted and is therefore in the public domain, allowing anyone to distribute or remake it (and they have). Dawn of the Dead was funded in no small part by Italian Investors, was re-cut and released there as Zombi. Day of the Dead is still owned by Taurus, who recently released an unlicensed sequel, Land of the Dead was produced by Universal, who occasionally markets it as a follow up to their REMAKE of Dawn of the Dead! Diary of the Dead, however, was produced by a joint venture called Romero-Grunwald Productions, controlled and owned by Uncle George and Peter Grunwald. Although distributed (in limited run) by The Weinstein Company, neither Bob, nor Harvey served as Executive Producers and the film was completed and released on the Festival Circuit before the Brothers paid their Two and a Half Million bucks for the distribution rights. This is Romero's current vision and I still salute him for it.
Romero has made all kinds of films, far from only Zombie Flicks. This is the Genre he changed forever, this is the Genre he made smart, this is the Genre he's visited five times thus far. Diary of the Dead is a very different film for him and a very, very good one. His twenty-three day shoot resulted in long camera cuts (with no visible crew in spite of the 360 degree vantage points) and a good deal of Post-Production CGI (which saved on time, but kept the realistic gore going). His satire, humor and relevance is still top notch, making the gore secondary and the story and themes the main attraction. Three and One Half Stars out of Five for Diary of the Dead, a truly Guerilla Film with a great cast and a solid writer/ director who is still worthy of the respect he now gets. Personally, when the world ends, I want this guy in my camp. He's now filmed the Zombie Armageddon from more vantage points and venues than any I could think of. He should write the Primer for the Apocalypse. And if he doesn't... I will... We'll call that the "next reel". See you there, Zombierella.
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