Almost forty years after his original genre-defining zombie film was released, George Romero returns for a fifth film in the genre he helped to pioneer. After so many subsequent films have adapted and re-defined the zombie genre, Diary of the Dead goes back to the beginning, with a re-imagining of the original cataclysmic outbreak, retconned to modern day. The resulting film is a mix of old and new, traditional lumbering zombies amongst a Youtube world, filmed in handheld POV. While Romero has delivered an interesting film (for a number of reasons), Diary of the Dead is ultimately disappointing and never quite manages to deliver on its potential.
One of the film’s strengths (and ironically, weaknesses) is the POV gimmick. Shooting from the camera’s point of view is an excellent technique for horror films, creating an extremely tense atmosphere that puts the viewer right in the events on screen. There are some genuinely frightening sequences in the film, aided immensely by the POV shooting. However, Romero seems too restricted by the POV gimmick. The film’s narrative doesn’t flow as naturally as it does in other films that use similar techniques (Cloverfield, for instance). The whole idea of a film-within-a-film feels forced as well, especially with the use of incidental music (a technique used to create tension, according to the editor of the film-within-a-film).
Diary of the Dead also lacks a genuine documentary feel, something present in The Blair Witch Project, clearly one of Romero’s inspirations for this film. The acting and characters seem especially over-the-top and borderline melodramatic. Strangely enough, the camera work also seems a bit too professional and high quality for student filmmakers. The composition is generally too staged to be believable (although there is a subtext in the film relating to authenticity and whether or not a documentary filmmaker can be objective and 100% truthful).
There are many interesting elements to Diary of the Dead but I feel Romero doesn’t quite meet the standards set by his previous zombie films. The film’s rhetoric about media propaganda risks heavy-handedness and the pseudo-documentary techniques employed do more harm than good. While still an interesting modern revision of Night of the Living Dead, Diary of the Dead fails to deliver on its ambition.