Eighteen films into his career as horror’s political conscience, George A. Romero’s spirits are flagging. “It’s just a stupid fucking mummy movie with a thread of social satire,” grunts Professor Maxwell (Scott Wentworth) to his class of film students including director Jason (Joshua Close), Texan ingénue Francine (Megan Park), and the rest of the relatively interchangeable crew stressing out over their final project. Each of Romero’s five Blank Of The Dead flicks targets American faults—the zombies eviscerate both our guts and hypocrisies. Night fretted over Vietnam; Dawn, consumerism; Day, the military-industrial complex; and Land, class divisions. Romero must be running out of crusades because here he rattles his camera at YouTube. Like Cloverfield, Diary is less a film than a vérité experiment. When the first undead started chomping torsos, Jason’s first move was to keep his camera rolling. This is history! His second was to track down girlfriend Debra (Michelle Morgan), a slim, practical brunette who loathes him two minutes in when Jason starts asking probing questions like “What’s your name—for the camera?”
The media are a target so popular and sprawling that Romero assumes every one of his darts from recycled Katrina footage to jaded newsman scores a bullseye. In this CNN age, the panic spreads before the predation. But the point he really wants to drive home is that holding a camera turns you from participant to spectator; you’re complicit in the carnage. And to make sure his Media Studies 101 thesis doesn’t go unapplauded, there’s nary a scene where either Deb or Maxwell doesn’t turn to Jason in disgust and huff, “If it didn’t happen on camera, it’s like it didn’t happen, right?” He’s six feet under the Zeitgeist and trying to play it hip. When Jason takes a breather at a safe home to create a MySpace account for his footage, he crows “72,000 hits in eight minutes!” These supposedly media-savvy kids know the news is propaganda, yet these smarty-pants seem to have never sat through a zombie movie before. When flesh eaters rise from the dead, you’d think the last place they’d go is a hospital. (Hello, basement morgue?) But they never catch on that it’s a bogus move to hang out with the bitten, pull over to chat on dark roads, walk around alone, and enter houses when the front door is ajar.
Venturing in Jason’s POV, we’re completely spooked. Romero might not know subtext from suburbs, but the McMansions he takes us to are wrenching. POV has potential as a horror film trope—what we can’t see is worse than what we can, especially when we’re begging the cameraman to turn around. We’re on edge with paranoia and irritation. Yet this year’s incarnations force us to see the world through the eyes of morons. By the time the camera is ripped from their cold, dead hands, we’ve already been rooting for their death. (Though a character’s last words, ‘‘Shoot me!” have a satisfying double meaning.)
Otherwise, the flick veers from nail biting to inane, punctuated by a few odd minutes of comedy which include a deaf-mute Amish with a scythe and an uncomfortable scene where Romero feigns to take on race relations by introducing a black gang that howls, “For the first time in our lives, we got all the power!” His stance against prejudice would be more effective if they weren’t all toting gats and looting booze. Oh, and if Barack Obama weren’t charging towards the presidency, but maybe Romero’s so busy checking his Facebook he hasn’t cracked open a newspaper. Ultimately, the unanswered—and possibly unconsidered—question is if Romero is lambasting the exploitation of death (“A diary of cruelty,” his stand-in Maxwell sniffs), how does that reconcile with his entire career? Both he and Jason have pretensions about the merit of cranial explosions. The only difference is Jason doesn’t discredit his audience and invites us to watch for free.