Mere minutes into his latest exercise in politically-conscious cannibalism, an overtly-serious voice alerts us that this is not a movie by the inimitable George A. Romero. It is, in fact, a sort of video assemblage culled from footage shot by Jason Creed (Josh Close
), a young film student living and working in Pennsylvania. This makeshift eulogy is spoken by Creed's main squeeze Debra (Michelle Morgan) who serves as editor of Creed's posthumous opus, ingeniously-titled The Death of Death.
After the initial frames turn an immigrant family into a bunch of slow-moving flesh-chewers taped by a local newsman, the perspective shifts directly to Creed's camera as he shoots the zombie rampage that was meant to be his senior thesis for his professor (Scott Wentworth), a world-class alcoholic. As his star (Philip Riccio) takes off for his mansion with the sound girl, Creed and his crew start hearing broadcasts over the internet and the radio about the dead coming back to life: the death of death indeed. Article continues below
Though it takes place on the road, Diary's aesthetic is the most claustrophobic of the Living Dead cycle since the original terror, and it's certainly the most perceptive since Dawn of the Dead. Romero
sets Creed and his crew in a Winnebago heading through the suburbs, dead towns, and top-tier estates of Pennsylvania's back country with Creed's camera documenting everything they go through. Every refuge of safety they encounter (hospital, Debra's home, an Amish farm) has been overrun by the rotting nibblers; even a mansion, the hope of fiscal safe haven, becomes overrun with the zombies.
What separates Diary from the rest of Romero's work is the lack of a military presence against the living dead. Almost every other film in the cycle offers the idea of an organized opposition to the epidemic: the sheriffs at the end of Night, the military in Dawn and Day, and the makeshift stronghold of the living in Land. It seems apt that one of the first flesh-mongers the group encounters is a sheriff stumbling from a car accident. No one's fighting for civilization anymore, and the only notions of defense and survival arise from a renegade black militia, bunkered in a warehouse.
Writing in Film Comment recently, the great Robin Wood traced the history of Romero's portrayal of black men in his zombie cycle as the only protagonists (and in Land's case, intelligent "villain") with any ingenuity to them. Though race is integral to each of his radical visions, the Living Dead cycle has a more drastic concern with American institutions: Night ate the American family, Dawn gobbled up consumerism, Day feasted on the American military, and Land chowed-down capitalism itself while toying with 9/11. With Diary, the gaze is strictly on the YouTuberation of our culture; a generation of slackjaws more happy to watch and take in the carnage than to do a damn thing about it. Creed says it most aptly, "If it's not on camera, it's like it never happened."
Talking with a few film friends this past weekend, there seemed an inexplicable favoring of the gimmicky yet startlingly successful Cloverfield
over Diary. Where Cloverfield simply rewrites the genre in terms of perspective, Diary reconsiders not only its own cycle but our entire way of life, a full-blooded, blood-strewed satire). Though Romero's critical eye is a bit broad and some of his metaphors are convoluted, Diary still strikes me as a unrelenting and audacious experience that owes more to DIY independence than to the horror genre. As it often is with Romero, pledging allegiance to anything becomes an act of acquiescence.