I may have given the impression that I thought Diary of the Dead was the fifth part in George Romero’s zombie series... and, well, it sort of is, although it doesn’t continue the careful chronology of its four predecessors. In fact, it’s actually almost a remake of Night of the Living Dead... As in, the one where everything went batshit to begin with.
Here in Diary of the Dead everything goes batshit for the first time again – only this time it all takes place in the much-discussed “digital age” (so called because everyone wears digital watches). Accordingly, instead of just hearing strange reports of the dead returning to life over the radio, here we get viral videos on YouTube, camera-phone footage on MySpace pages... Hell, Romero even shows Anchorwoman In Peril! on a PC screen at one point (or so I fantasized).
And of course we have a hip young cast – film students all – whom we first encounter while they’re out filming an amateur horror movie in the woods. Unlike any previous Dead movie, they’re all gorgeous – just like in your average mainstream horror movie – and it’s here that the jokes begin. Because Diary of the Dead is as much about questioning the relevance of the horror genre in the modern world as it is Romero’s fabled metaphors of “us versus... wait, we are them!”.
Our squeaky-clean teens call themselves documentarians, but their idea of making a documentary is pointing their cell phones at each other and asking for sound bites. Horror is something they clearly believe beneath them – although they obviously also have no idea what they’re doing, since they’re making an old-fashioned, hopelessly anachronistic mummy movie complete with a bandaged baddie and fleeing girl in gothic dress.
So when the dead really do begin to rise, these MySpace-generation media-junkies actually find themselves more at home with videoing the kinds of atrocities they’ve seen on the news a million times before, with the aim of putting the footage online and “getting the truth out”. Despite being forced to kill friends, discover dead family members and survive zombie attacks, they barely bat an eyelid. But, as they point out, they’ve become completely desensitised – as much by making video footage as by viewing it.
As for whether you’ll feel any actual sympathy for these cyber-ciphers of characters, I’m less sure. Yes, Diary of the Dead works as a zombie movie (and Romero is the master of the unexpected detail) but I’m not sure it horrifies as a horror movie. There just isn’t the emotional investment. But, as far as I’m concerned, Romero owns the zombie genre and can do whatever the hell he likes with it. He’s already made four undead epics fizzing with emotional and intellectual stimulus... If he thinks the time is right for a step back from the fear-factor in order to shuffle zombie-style in a new direction, then I’m right there with him. And Diary of the Dead is definitely a new direction, one that the director sees right through to the sticky end.