Perhaps figuring that there was nowhere left to go after the apocalyptic Land of the Dead -- in which zombies pretty much took over the world -- Romero decides to "reboot" his undead universe by returning to the start of the zombie outbreak. Diary focuses on a group of film students from Pittsburgh who are filming a low-budget mummy movie in the woods when news stories start trickling in over the TV, Internet and other modern doohickeys that the dead are coming back to life and attacking everyone. They're even able to catch some grainy video footage of what looks for all the world like a zombie attack.
The mummy film's director, Jason (Joshua Close), sees the crisis as an opportunity to create a landmark movie (which he titles The Death of Death) documenting the chaos, so he keeps his camera running...and running...and running. Everyone is annoyed at his callous effort to capitalize on -- er, "document" -- the tragic events, but surprisingly no one smashes his camera or kicks him out of their Winnebago (a good choice for a zombie survival vehicle, by the way).
Unsure of whether to believe the news reports or the governmental reports denying the walking dead, the group decides to head towards the closest of their homes, that of Debra (Michelle Morgan). They travel across Pennsylvania, avoiding the heavily populated cities, and along the way encounter a spectrum of undead and non-dead alike, including zombie police, clowns and medical staff and living National Guardsmen, Amish farmers and black revolutionaries (in Amish Pennsylvania?) -- all with an agenda of their own. The filmmakers eventually end up at the mansion owned by Ridley (Philip Riccio), the spoiled actor who portrayed the mummy, and use it as a base to hold off the onslaught of the living dead.
The End Product
For some reason, it took nine years from the surprise success of The Blair Witch Project for a slew of first-person horror films in that movie's vein to hit theaters. Diary of the Dead follows closely on the heels of the similarly shot Cloverfield, whose success could prove detrimental to Diary's acceptance. It's certainly detrimental to its freshness, because not only is the gimmicky shooting style the same, but Cloverfield did it so much better. Romero is a genre master, but his first-person attempt to immerse us in this zombie-fest feels forced, nonsensical and ironically distracting enough that we never feel like a part of his world.
The off-putting nature of the direction begins early on when the camera, as operated by Jason, keeps rolling on everything the cast and crew of the mummy movie do even before they learn of the zombie outbreak. Later, Jason (i.e., Romero by way of Jason) is so concerned with getting the action on camera that he doesn't lift a finger to help his friends fend off the zombies -- which, granted, you could blame on a character flaw, but why in one scene do we get a static shot of one of the students lying under the camper trying to fix it as zombies come to drag her away? And I groaned out loud when the group just "happened" to stumble across a second camera so that Jason/Romero wouldn't feel quite so hampered by the first-person concept. I mean, who finds operable high-end video equipment just lying around?
I suppose you could say that Romero actually did too good a job at making the film feel like it was directed by an inexperienced college student, because that's exactly how it comes off. Paradoxically, the video and sound quality actually seems too crisp -- even when far away from the subjects -- and the camera is too steady to relate the force of the hectic situation. Jason/Romero is so concerned with getting everything in shot and in focus that the action has a clinical coldness that instills anything but fear or adrenaline. The relatively unknown cast doesn't help matters, rendering potentially anxious moments limp with flat, drama club deliveries.
Even Romero's writing, usually a dependable showcase of biting social commentary, comes up short. While the commentary is present, it feels either misplaced (Armed black people criminally profiteering from a short supply of goods, exclaiming, "For the first time in our lives, we got the power!" hardly seems like a positive statement against the Hurricane Katrina situation.), irrelevant (Yes, people like to rubberneck. Yes, there is a fascination with watching video of tragedy unfolding. So what?) or derivative (The ending question we're left with -- "Are we worth saving?" -- is a well-worn concept that Romero has explored repeatedly since Night of the Living Dead.). Although admirable in concept, if it weren't directed by Romero, Diary of the Dead feels ripe for the direct-to-video shelves.