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A group of Pennsylvanian film students find themselves fighting for survival as undead zombies rise to devour the flesh of the living. Jason (Joshua Close), the group’s leader and aspiring film-maker, decides to document the coming apocalypse with his hand-held camera. However, his ever increasing detachment from the horrors of reality threatens to jeopardise not only his own life, but the lives of his peers.
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George A. Romero returns to his roots with the release of Diary of the Dead (2007). Relinquishing his partnership with Universal Pictures who aided with both the production and distribution of the big-budget Land of the Dead (2005), Romero completed Diary for just $2m through his own independent production company, Romero-Grunwald Productions. With the familiarity of complete artistic control, Romero revisits the first few days of the undead invasion that was explored in his debut feature, Night of the Living Dead (1968). However, rather than produce a higher budget remake, Diary of the Dead marks a complete, modern re-imagining of the …of the Dead saga, rejecting traditional filming methods for a guerrilla style, hand-held aesthetic. The result is a tight, claustrophobic, satirical horror that questions not only the morality of the film’s protagonists but the ethics of today’s global mass-media.
Romero normalises his latest …of the Dead entry’s low budget, hand-held aesthetic by placing a group of young film students as his central characters. Enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh, the undergraduates are busy shooting a no-budget horror movie about a homicidal mummy, under the watchful observation of their pithy, alcoholic British film tutor, Mr. Maxwell (Scott Wentworth). As in Night of the Living Dead the group initially hear of acts of cannibalism and unexplained homicide through confused radio reports. They make the decision to return home to their respective families. However, they soon find themselves ensnared by the apocalyptic events.
Recent American-based events such as the disastrous aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are also satirised. Upon reaching a seemingly deserted town, the remaining survivors come across a group of heavily armed African Americans, left behind when the town was evacuated by “all the folks without sun-tans”. Deserted and left for dead, they have managed to establish a secure base and have embraced this new found ‘power’. Just as in Land of the Dead, where the poor are liberated from the rich and powerful residents of Fiddler’s Green and its tyrannical ruler Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) by the undead, this group have gained an ironic freedom thanks to the arrival of the flesh-eaters.
Debra (the film’s sometime narrator and true leader of the survivors, played by Michelle Morgan) successfully manages to guide the remaining group to the mansion owned by their friend Ridley’s (Phillip Riccio) parents. Naturally, Romero quickly extracts chaos from perceived safety and a zombified Ridley leaves Jason fatally wounded. Throughout the film, constant allusions are made to the camera as ‘like a gun’ (both Mr. Maxwell and Debra relinquish there possession of a gun/camera stating, “It’s too easy to use.”). As Jason lies dying from his injuries, Debra points both a camera and pistol at his head, firing the trigger whilst capturing his death; the ultimate act of voyeurism exacted upon a man who knew no life other than that seen behind the safety of a lens.
In Diary of the Dead, Romero’s real criticism lies with the human race’s ability to engage in horrific acts, yet at the same time ignore them. We see horrors everyday, yet we are protected from them by the barrier created by the television screen/computer monitor and ultimately, we forget them. As the film ends, we see the footage of the last online video Jason watched before his demise. Two rednecks (perhaps involved with the zombie-hunting militia we see in Night of the Living Dead) are seen using the undead as target practice. Debra, dismayed by what she watches, still refers to them as ‘human’. The final shots of the film see a female zombie tied to a tree by its ponytail just as her head is bisected by a shotgun blast. As the creatures startled eyes move from back to fourth, a bloody tear seems to trickle down its face and Debra poses the question, “Are we worth saving?” On evidence of this, perhaps not.