George Romero’s Underrated ‘Diary of the Dead’ Offers a Relevant Message for These Troubling Times

When Gil Scott-Heron claimed that the revolution would not be televised, I don’t think he was referring to the dystopic future of 2021, but he wasn’t that far off. What was once considered “emerging media” has taken over the world, with live-tweeting and amateur phone footage mostly replacing newspapers and television crews. While this change may have been gradual, there was one filmmaker who lived through the evolution of modern media and felt this cultural shift coming. George A. Romero may be remembered as the father of the modern zombie flick, but he was also an auteur who didn’t mind reinventing himself in order to keep his stories relevant. That’s why I’d like to talk about one of his most underrated movies, the eerily prescient Found-Footage film, Diary of the Dead.

For those who haven’t seen it, the story follows an ensemble of film students as they document a zombie outbreak, exploring how survivors might share and react to information when society begins to crumble. Once these young filmmakers embark on an ill-fated road trip, their impromptu documentary slowly reveals less about the zombies and more about the ugly side of human nature, making for a classic Romero picture with copious amounts blood, guts and post-9/11 allegory. Of course, in order to really appreciate what Romero was going for with Diary of the Dead, we have to look back at the context surrounding this odd little production.

The original Dead trilogy received a satisfying conclusion back in the 80s with Day of the Dead, but the socio-political turmoil of the Bush era ultimately convinced Romero that he had more to say within the Zombie genre. This resulted in a comeback with 2005’s tremendously entertaining post-apocalyptic parable, Land of the Dead. Unfortunately, the production of this undead epic was a terrible experience for the director, as he was forced to deal with studio meddling and a series of personal problems behind the scenes. While I think the final product stands alongside the original trilogy as an iconic piece of horror fiction, it’s no surprise that Romero decided to tone things down a bit in his next project. So, in 2007, George returned to the low-budget guerrilla filmmaking that earned him his stardom, but for different reasons.

While the cultural landscape surrounding Diary of the Dead could not have been any more different than Night of the Living Dead‘s swinging 60s, both movies share a rebellious spirit informed by Romero’s own fears. By the mid-2000s, it was obvious that media as a whole was changing, and so was our way of consuming it. Communication empires were starting to fracture under their own weight and online social bubbles were rapidly expanding. In this chaotic environment, Romero figured that it was up to common folk to rise up and help untangle what he called a “media octopus”. And who better to fight for the truth than a rag-tag band of naïve film students?

“Just keep filming!”

Of course, Romero was also influenced by the rise of YouTube, one of the most revolutionary media platforms of all time. Corporate interests and greedy algorithms may have put a dent in its reputation, but the site was originally envisioned as a place where regular people could share their point of view without fear of corporate oversight. It’s no wonder that YouTube was once regarded as a beacon of free expression, but it was also a hub for all sorts of viral horror content, usually presented as real-life Found Footage. Naturally, these ideas bled over into Diary‘s portrayal of an online media-frenzy.

At the time, Found-Footage had yet to be re-popularized by the Paranormal Activity franchise, but it wasn’t exactly an obscure style of filmmaking. After The Blair Witch Project, the sub-genre was usually adopted by up-and-coming filmmakers as a way of breaking into the business without going bankrupt. Obviously, this wasn’t the case with Romero, as this Master of Horror deliberately chose to make a Found-Footage project because he realized the format’s potential for telling intimate and timely stories.

While themes of media censorship and the ineffective government response provide a terrifying and realistic backdrop for this re-imagined undead uprising, Romero’s choice of telling the story through the lens of amateur filmmakers also adds another level of commentary to the picture. The characters’ insistence on completing The Death of Death (the film within the film) makes for a compelling case of “the medium is the message”, and their obsession with documenting their survival wouldn’t be out of place in today’s social media landscape. In fact, the movie feels even creepier now that we live in an age when we’re more likely to hear about international tragedies through an Instagram post than a special news bulletin.

Despite this novel approach, Diary still benefits from the same charms as Romero’s traditional zombie flicks. Moments like the tragic discovery of Debra’s family or the Professor’s nihilistic musings on the future of humanity echo some of the best aspects of the director’s previous work. That’s not even mentioning the appropriately ominous finale, which concludes the film on a grim viral video. After all, zombies can be stopped with a simple bullet to the brain, but there’s no cure for human nature.

“Now it’s us against them, except they’re us.”

Unfortunately, Diary of the Dead succumbs to some classic Found Footage pitfalls that keep it from becoming a modern classic. From convenient camera angles to questionable CGI, plus a couple of overly theatrical moments, the movie has its fair share of flaws, but I still think it works as a visceral zombie flick. Personally, the simple fact that a filmmaking legend is trying his hand at a new and incredibly difficult form of storytelling more than makes up for some stilted dialogue and computer-generated blood splatters.

Romero actually described his experience with Found-Footage like “coming home”, saying that he enjoyed the possibility of unscripted surprises and down-to-earth storytelling. In behind-the-scenes featurettes, the director actually claimed that there’s more planning involved in setting up a convincing Found Footage shot than a traditional one, and he explains that he preferred to cast stage actors in order to facilitate longer and more complex scenes. At the end of the day, it’s quite clear that he had fun playing around with this new format while commenting on the future of emerging media. It’s a real shame that he didn’t get the chance to perfect his technique with more Found-Footage projects, though I’m still grateful for what we got.

Even then, most of Diary‘s flaws are justified by the premise. The entire movie is meant to have been cobbled together by a handful of amateur film students, so some of the pretentious narration and wonky pacing actually contribute to the realistic tone. There’s also a surprising amount of humor in this mostly nihilistic picture, from playful jabs at running zombies to dynamite-wielding Amish folk. Horror fans are also likely to appreciate the numerous voice cameos from other masters of the craft like Guillermo Del Toro, Stephen King, Tom Savini, Wes Craven and even Quentin Tarantino.

Diary of the Dead is far from Romero’s greatest work, but it’s still worth watching after all these years. The subtext is still on point, the zombies are still scary and there’s no beating that chilling apocalyptic atmosphere. So, whether you’re a zombie enthusiast, Found Footage fan or just a casual horror hound up for some socially conscious thrills, I wholeheartedly recommend digging this one up. The revolution may not be televised, but if the late, great George A. Romero is to be believed, it might just show up online. And I think that’s a relevant message for these troubling times.

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