Diary of the Dead isn't a sequel to the other movies in Romero's Dead series, but it does tend to assume that you know Romero's standard operating rules about zombies. If a zombie bites you or if you die in any way, that's it for you -- you're undead. The undead are cannibalistic, and the only way to destroy them is to destroy their braaaaains. Unlike the other Dead movies, this one is shot as if it were a documentary -- a survivor has pieced together footage from the first night that the dead come back to life.
A group of college kids is in the midst of filming a horror movie for their class when the dead start walking. Jason (Joshua Close) decides that whatever they decide to do that night, he wants to capture it on video -- he's not about to give up an opportunity to record what might be a monumental event in history. The group decides to head for campus -- and then realizes how truly horrible the situation has become. Instead, Jason's practical girlfriend Debra (Michelle Morgan) suggests they try to drive to her family's home. In the meantime, they have to avoid attacks from the undead and keep the camera battery charged while encountering a zombie-filled hospital, an Amish farmer (one of the best scenes in the movie), and a stronghold of non-dead guys with lots of weaponry.
Does this sound a little Cloverfield-ish to you? I saw Diary of the Dead first, and I kept thinking that Cloverfield was similar but to my mind, not as entertaining. The plot of Diary allows that the footage can be edited, and that the person shooting it knows something about using a camera. And he has a compelling reason for hanging onto that camera, even if he seems wrongly obsessive about it. The characters in Diary have stronger personalities and are smarter, plus it's easier to distinguish one from another. Michelle Morgan and Amy Lalonde were standouts, except that Lalonde was not convincing as a Texan. (The script was partially to blame for that, with terrible alleged Texas-isms that made an Austin audience laugh in the wrong spots.)
Diary of the Dead is a movie with a cinematic self-awareness: in the opening scene, Debra is complaining about the scene in which she plays a horror victim who is running away from her pursuer in a dumb way. You know that this scene is going to pay off later in the film -- after all, it's a zombie movie -- but the way in which is happens is a moment of welcome amusement in the middle of zombie horror and gore.
Romero's Dead films always have political messages behind them, and this one includes some speculation on the way in which contemporary media and news are changing. If you can't trust the mainstream media, are news bloggers any more trustworthy? The "footage" in the film includes not only Jason's tapes but also clips found on the internet from news cameras, footage that is perhaps being suppressed on mainstream channels, showing zombie attacks.
The group also hears rabid radio broadcasts in their van -- some of the broadcasters might sound vaguely familiar. I didn't realize it until later, but the voice talent for those broadcasters included Stephen King, Wes Craven, Simon Pegg and Guillermo del Toro. These are the only well-known names in the cast -- the actors are all lesser-known faces in order to add to the believability factor.
Diary of the Dead doesn't measure up to Romero's original film, but what can? The 1968 movie is an iconic institution at this point. But this stripped-down zombie flick, shot on DV, has turned out to be my favorite of all the Dead sequels and remakes -- I also think it's the most believable. The combination of horror, humor, and mockumentary works well in this movie.