The first images in Diary of the Dead are simultaneously familiar and new. A news crew is shooting a crime scene, camera careening between bodies on gurneys, as they’re removed from an apartment building. “Some guy,” notes a uniform on scene, “Shoots his wife and kid, then eats them.” The story gets more complicated when it’s revealed the killer has “no fucking papers,” the immigrant family now presenting the threat of illegals and borders crossed. And then something else happens. “Jesus, I don’t believe this,” spurts the cameraman. “She’s still moving!” The frame swings over to the woman, lurching from beneath her bloody white sheet to grab the medical tech who’s trying to load her onto the ambulance. Mauling, biting, grabbing: she’s a monster.
And so it begins again, the incursion of the living dead upon the rest of us, only this time, captured moment by moment by first person cameras. Yet again, George Romero reinvents the franchise, working through some recurring themes (race anxieties, family tensions) and a frankly topical one, the drive to self-document, to upload, to find truth in pictures. As the news cameraman watches his girl reporter ravaged before his lens, he calls out from off-screen, “This can’t be fucking happening!” As counterpoint comes a voiceover, by Debra (Michelle Morgan), full-time film student at University of Pittsburgh, sometimes dedicated girlfriend to Jason (Josh Close). “Most of it was bullshit,” she says of the footage of that attack and others that began to fill up the net. “None of it was useful. Now it’s 24/7.”
Diary of the Dead
Michelle Morgan, Josh Close, Philip Riccio, Scott Wentworth, Joe Dinicol, Amy Ciupak Lalonde, Tatiana Maslany, Megan Park, Shawn Roberts, Alan Van Sprang, Chris Violette
US theatrical: 15 Feb 2008 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 7 Mar 2008 (Limited release)
Her own footage, or more precisely, Jason’s footage, begins with the horror movie he’s doing for class, “The Death of Death.” Corny in all the expected ways, it features a girl in white nightgown and distress (Tracy, played by Amy Ciupak Lalonde), a monster in mummy-bandages (Philip Riccio as Ridley). As he runs across the screen, director Jason calls cut. “How many times have I told you? Dead things don’t move that fast.”
It’s a funny joke, a good-natured nod to the newfangled infected cannibals of 28 Days Later as much as a find look-back at the zombies of the Living Dead, all lumbering and awkward and bloody-corpselike, despite their revivification. Real zombies, asserts the gag, are slow, but hat doesn’t make them any less horrific: their menace is precisely their implacable sluggishness. They never stop…. unless of course, you shoot ‘em in the head.
Following the same basic plot of the other Living Dead movies, Diary here introduces a zombie who alarms the film students into their own sort of speed. After a brief debate over where to go or what to do when facing what seems a spreading catastrophe, they split into two groups, the actor who believes in his privilege (and brings along a pretty PA to hide out at his parents’ mansion) and the rest of the crew, more skeptical by dint of their need to labor for money. These become the core group, making their way across the killing-and-eating fields in a Winnebago. Smartly, the first-person cameras continually compound the problem, as some of the student filmmakers feel obligated to disseminate all available information, terrible and uncensored imagery that constitutes a kind of “truth.” Upset when they learn that cable and local news and the government “was lying to us,” the 20somethings are moved to show the world “what’s happened.” As Debra notes in her voiceover (which she explains she has applied later, along with a music soundtrack she describes as a means to “scare you,” for her imagined viewers, who are indeed you), to counter the lies released by mainstream media and the government. “It was all over the news,” she says, “All over the web, but no one really knew what was going on.”
The diffusion of information, the glut of opinions and aspersions cast by bloggers and other self-described journalists, becomes a central target in Diary, which assumes its own recorders are truth-tellers, though you may be inclined to wonder as they argue and at least some of them cheat one another. While the movie includes a couple of preemptive explanations as to why the students film themselves and the monsters who attack them so incessantly (à la Blair Witch or Cloverfield), for the most part it takes its protagonists/filmmakers at their words. When Jason insists on shooting, recharging his battery, or taking time to upload, Debra argues with him—at first. “The camera’s the whole thing,” he protests. No, she just about stamps her foot, “Getting help is the whole thing.”
The plucky crew and their faculty advisor/war veteran (Scott Wentworth) find plenty of camera-ready material as they make their way from devastation to devastation—a hospital where dead doctors are eating their patients, a farmhouse where an Amish man finds a particularly gruesome for his scythe, a suburban home where spouses eat one another. Indeed, as the monsters are increasingly revealed to be the very friends and families the students seek to rejoin, the difference between “us” and them turns inside out. “It used to be us against us,” laments Jason. “Now it’s us against them, except they’re us.”
As anyone who’s seen a Living Dead movie knows, this is an inevitable realization, and doesn’t necessarily help anyone to survive. Here the problem of “us” versus “us” is compounded by surveillance technology and the persuasiveness of imagery. “Somebody might be watching us right now,” worries Tony (Shawn Roberts), once they’re ensconced at a home complete with panic room and security cameras. The film picks up the theme when Debra explains her decision to incorporate into her “final cut” a series of images from multiple security cameras (grainy digital, herky jerky), showing murder after murder by walking deads. You don’t imagine they’ll be “watching” anytime soon (they’re far more primitive than the thoughtful zombie leader of Land of the Dead), but the essential anxiety—of being consumed by viewers—is hard to shake.
The students’ most compelling encounter involves a group of black militia men, determined to hold their ground and keep faith with one another. Their expertise is undisputed (when one student suggests they may get help from the National Guard, the leader announces, “I am the National Guard”), and their moral ground looks firm. “We got the power for the first time in our lives,” the leader explains to the bewildered group of white university students. “We got the power, everyone else left, all the folks without suntans.”
Repeatedly, Diary finds ways to locate its old plot in a new time. As in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, the panic over the zombies triggers a realignment of communities according to visible differences. The black militia men, black men with lots of guns, are not about to be isolated and killed by cracker vigilantes like Ben (Duane Jones). They mean to survive, and though Diary leaves them before you see their fate, that very move—to leave them—speaks to the film’s point about difference and fear and the ways that image-makers decide on who’s in the images. When one of the militia men admires Debra, noting their similar toughness and determination, it’s a brief bit of bonding and mutual admiration that goes a long way in a film that is so suffused with brutality and betrayal.