Known as the godfather of the zombies, there is no denying the late George A. Romero’s massive impact on the subgenre. A lot of people aren’t even aware of the fact that many tropes associated with zombie films began with his films like Night of the Living Dead, and didn’t exist in horror previously. Thus, Romero spent his career crafting an entire “of the Dead” franchise spanning decades and 6 films directed by Romero himself (not even counting all the remakes and spinoffs).
Known for this social commentary, Romero’s films were largely acclaimed by both critics and audiences. Even returning after a 20 year hiatus with 2005’s Land of the Dead, he perfectly captured the “safety vs. security” sentiment in a post-9/11 world. So it’s unfortunate that his 2007 follow up, Diary of the Dead, remains so lowly regarded.
So in honor of its 15th anniversary today, we wanted to take a look back at Diary of the Dead and see what went wrong, and acknowledge some of the merits that it still deserves.
Straying From His Lane
Diary of the Dead was Romero’s first foray into found footage. Over the last decade or so, we’ve seen countless found footage horror films with a very wide disparity when it comes to quality. So it’s easy to forget that in 2007, Romero was actually ahead of the game, rather than following the trend.
Sure, we had already had films like Cannibal Holocaust in 1980 and The Blair Witch Project in 1999, but the explosion of found footage movies being everywhere in horror really seemed to take off after Cloverfield and Quarantine in 2008, and Paranormal Activity in 2009. So Romero adapting to this model of filmmaking was actually quite innovative. The issue was more in how he did it.
Following a group of college students making a horror movie, Diary of the Dead shows them documenting a zombie uprising. The found footage style was meant to give it a gritty sense of realism, but the final film comes off far too polished.
Our main character (and narrator) Debra mentions that she added music, which is obviously for us the real life audience, but in universe, it seems strange that someone would add creepy music to real life footage they have of their friends dying one by one.
The movie itself opens up with a newscast and honestly this is what feels the most real and disturbing. There’s too much shaky handheld camera for a typical Hollywood movie, but the music and production value (as well as the camera quality) is way too high for that of your typical found footage movie.
As a result, the “news footage” scenes feel the most at home, because they’re that perfect balance between the two. It almost feels like Diary of the Dead would have worked better as either a fake newscast (like 2007’s Rec and its American remake Quarantine) or as a mockumentary, complete with talking heads.
Like all George A. Romero films, Diary of the Dead is about so much more than just zombies. The entire time our cast of student filmmakers are documenting the carnage, some of them get excited at the prospect of their footage potentially going viral on the internet. It all fees into the film’s larger theme of the sensationalism of violence, particularly in the news.
Several characters argue back and forth about whether filming everything is necessary for historical purposes or exploitative for entertainment purposes, and honestly both are simultaneously true. It’s possible Romero was even commenting on horror itself with that point and the debate between gore for art’s sake and gore for gore’s sake.
Diary of the Dead certainly has its flaws, but Romero deserves a lot of credit for trying something new and different. Perhaps if it had been released a little later, it might have done better, especially with the whole going viral theme. Audiences in 2007 still weren’t “living on social media” as much as they would be, even just a few years later.
It’s definitely on the lower end of his “of the Dead” franchise, but by no means is it a bad film. And no director should ever be harshly criticized for trying something creatively different, even if it doesn’t entirely work out.
What did you think of Diary of the Dead? Let us know in the comments!
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