Fear not, Romero junkies. The old guy still has it. Apparently more than energetic enough at an impressive 67 years of age, the creator of the zombie genre has popped back up with a new indie flick that's sure to entertain anyone who's followed the guy's career for the past 30-some years ... like me. After teaming up with a big studio to deliver the adequate-if-unspectacular Land of the Dead, George A. Romero returns to his grass-roots indie-style origins and comes up with Diary of the Dead -- which is easily his most entertaining horror film since 1985's Day of the Dead.
Just to be clear: Diary is not another chapter in the series that began with Night of the Living Dead and continued on with Dawn, Day and Land of the Dead. Instead it's a stand-alone and entirely fresh take on the inevitably impending zombie apocalypse, as seen through the eyes (and the camera lenses) of a bunch of film students who head off into the woods to make a horror flick ... and end up making the nastiest horror documentary ever imagined. So yeah, it's a zombie flick crossed with the visual approach of The Blair Witch Project. But it's also quite a bit more than that.
Ever since Night of the Living Dead hit the scene in 1968, film critics and horror lovers alike have been applauding George Romero for mixing grimly amusing gore, insightful social satire, and all sorts of juicy subtextual nuggets amidst all the high-end ultra-carnage. And that trend continues unabated in Diary of the Dead. This time around Mr. Romero seems most interested in the media, and the ways in which it shapes our reactions to life's unexpected tragedies. Icing on top: By using the 'fake movie within a movie' conceit, the zombie lord gives himself ample opportunity to poke fun at the "reality" of documentary filmmaking. And poke he does!
The veteran craftsman also seems entirely fascinated by the ways in which information is instantly disseminated over the internet, so there's plenty of geek-friendly cleverness to be found here. To those who simply want a good old-fashioned chomp-fest, rest assured that there's gore galore -- plus a very healthy dose of in-joke horror references that nerds like me always enjoy. And no, the funny stuff does not overwhelm the splat-tastic mayhem. As is often the case, the humor offsets the scary / gross moments and all the components congeal into a full-course genre treat.
The cast is a no-name (yet impressively competent) roster of newcomers ... even if most of the characters are 75% standard horror fodder. Leading lady Michelle Morgan makes a very strong impression, as do Shawn Roberts as a jerk who slowly turns heroic and Scott Wentworth as a boozy-yet-volatile film professor. Plus I can't locate the actor's name, but whoever plays "Samuel the Old Amish Guy" is destined to become a cult icon once Diary of the Dead hits the screens. Romero employs a lot of humor here (both broad and subtle stuff), but that Amish guy brought the house down at the screening I attended.
And very best of all -- after 40 years and five zombie fests -- George Romero still knows how to come up with some really creative ways to "re-kill" his undead cannibals. Obviously I'm not going to spoil any surprises, but if you were worried that Romero was getting complacent or 'soft' in his later years, well, you'll just have to check out Diary of the Dead before you make that call. Frankly I'm just thrilled to see the King of the Zombies chime back in (and on his own terms) with at least one more tale of the ravenous undead -- in gritty, low-budget fashion and stuffed with clever ideas. And when Romero decides to do another one (Blog of the Dead?), you know I'll be first in line.