Romero: An Appreciation Part 05 – Diary of the Dead

There was a three year gap between Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead, the second shortest wait between films in the series. Once again Romero had stayed securely in the realm of the independent film maker and this buoyed most fans with the anticipation that once again he would be back on form.

Diary marked the first of what may end up being a whole new chapter in the “Dead” series, turning full circle back to the first night of the mysterious cataclysm from which the dead rose. It centres around a group of amateur film makers who are caught in the wood creating a mummy movie on the night in question.

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From this premise Romero attempts to create a zombie film in first person, a popular gimmick in modern horror and one that has worked again and again with some great affect. Unfortunately this is almost exactly the wrong style of film for Romero, who’s simple scene construction and locked off shots have become a staple in his style. In Romero movies pans and dollies are instigated by onscreen action and rarely superfluous in nature. His simple scene design is made special by his keen editing and sound design.

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With Diary everything that sets Romero from the crowd is buried under the practicality of the style, shots were nearly always moving and editing was dictated by when the film students camera’s were turned on and off. Sound became whatever ambient sound was logical on set and music was almost non existent.

Immediately it can be seen that Romero had bitten off far more than he must have understood with this film. One simple style choice and he found the whole movies construction had become etched in stone.

I suppose this could be forgiven, but for the occasional moments of effects work (which are mainly CG) when the camera movement would suddenly drop and the special effect is telegraphed to the audience.

Diary does have fewer problems with it than (the much better) “Land of the Dead” but what is wrong with “Diary” is all encompassing, every shot of the film is marred by the poor decisions and so it becomes increasingly difficult to see past them.

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One issue it shares with Land is poor casting, whereas Land’s casting could be considered as more or less ill-concieved, Diary’s lacks anything that captures the audience. Partly this is due to the first person style, it’s increasingly difficult to care about characters that are always behind a camera recording violent voyeurism. It’s also very difficult to find logical situations where personal moments can be captured with any poignancy. Ultimately it’s difficult to understand whether the actors are simply wrong for their roles or whether the style precludes any way for them to show their aptitude.

Diary also takes Romero’s move into the land of the digital one step further, moving to a fully digital process from camera to finished film. Whereas Land shot in film that was digitised, Diary began the process with a digital source using Panasonic DigitalHD camera’s pushing Romero further from the process to which he had become familiar over the years.

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Though there are obviously many things that most viewers consider wrong with Diary the film does have its strengths too, though many of these were perhaps more a strength of intent rather than execution.

Diary’s smaller story was a welcome return to the concept of personal freedom and intimacy that made the first three “Dead” films so engrossing. If the film had been shot third-person, as most films are, then this would have been the movies main strength and the multiple character pairings within the group would have made the potential for this movie far more dramatic than the previous films. This is actually where Romero’s strength’s lay, his creation of characters that we really believe to have strong personal attachments (even though short chance meetings) is the key to what makes his stories work. Regardless of whether we like or dislike them we relinquish a certain amount of emotional attachment to them. Unfortunately in Diary this does not happen, but it’s very clear to see why and it’s also clear why Romero was powerless to stop it.

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Whereas in earlier films Romero would allow characters to fall into morbid reverie only to be drawn back to the horror of the world around them, in Diary the characters never seem to break from faux-profundities. There are times when the characters themselves seem to be playing characters; their sweeping shifts in tone are so complete.

The prime example of this is Professor Andrew Maxwell (Scott Wentworth) who moves from being an eccentric drunkard to a sharpshooting archer with a speed that seems rather miraculous. As played by Canadian Wentworth the character employs the slightly effeminate “English” accent that passes for the real thing in many American movies, as well as the poor attitude and the lofty self opinion. In short, Andrew Maxwell is the English Cliché, and unfortunately he isn’t the only cliché the film adopts.

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We have the “strong female”, who spends much of the film attacking the “work obsessed male” while the “young lovers” canoodle sometimes oblivious to the violence around them. We also have the “bad boy” naysayer and the token “pretty geek”, and it seems that none of the group has a great deal to say for themselves outside of their respective clichés.

Putting aside the “found footage” style the most shocking thing about Diary is that George A. Romero actually wrote it; which is to say that no where in his previous films did we see any clue to the how poorly the man could write. It pains most of his fans that Romero could produce something as badly conceived, written and executed as Diary of the Dead and unlike Land it is difficult to ascertain the reasons for the myriad problems the film contains.

Perhaps a stronger cast would have made it work, actors whose force of personality could overcome the films limitations but this is unsure. The only inkling we get of this idea is the brief inclusion of a character that would feature in a later “Dead” film, the first time this has officially happened so far in the series; at one point the students’ encounter a group of guardsmen who have gone renegade and this moment really stands out in the viewers mind.

The inclusion of this particular character does imply a few things too.

George Romero's Diary Of The Dead

The end scene of the previous “Dead” film shows a group of survivors travelling into the sunset aboard a land train called Dead Reckoning, and in this there is a tale.

Twice George Romero has had a tentative deal to do a TV series, once a few years earlier with UK’s Granada Television (a Night of the Living Dead series) and more recently with one called Dead Reckoning.

Obviously neither of these shows was ever to be, but it is likely that many ideas had circulated regarding possible storylines and it seems likely that these ideas may be the seeds behind the subsequent “Dead” films. This of course leads to the obviously conclusion that the character of the “Colonal” (renamed “Sarge” in the next film), who accosts the students in this stand out scene was a variant on the earlier character of Riley from Land of the Dead.

This may explain why their inclusion in Diary seems rather incomprehensible to the audience, as the moment is a sidebar to the action and does not significantly alter the rather meandering story; but things become much clearer a year later when “Survival of the Dead” is released.

This is when the Colonel becomes Sarge “Nicotine” Crockett and takes on more than a passing character resemblance to Riley.

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