Diary of the Dead: Two-Disc Special Edition Review
In 2005, George Romero revisited his zombie mythos with Land of the Dead. In my review at the time, I said it was Romero's best film in some twenty years – since Day of the Dead in fact. While I haven't seen Land since, I would stand by that, but there's also a sense that the film – made as it was for a major studio – isn't quite Romero at full-strength. (Gorehounds in particular were disappointed by a MPAA R rating, which became a 15 via the BBFC.)
Two years later, we have Diary of the Dead. This isn't a sequel as such, as Romero giving his series a reboot – very much the appropriate word. In this film he revisits the early days, when the dead first began to walk. Apart from the forty-year time gap, and the changes in technology that resulted, this could be the events of the original Night of the Living Dead seen through thee eyes of a different group of characters. And once again “eyes” is appropriate. The characters are filming the events as they unfold, and that's what we see on screen, mostly through the DV camera of Jason Creed (Joshua Close).
Jason and a group of fellow film students are shooting a horror movie at night when reports come in of dead people coming back to life. Diary of the Dead follows them – as Jason keeps shooting, joined later by a second camera – as they try to find a safe place to hide.
The use of subjective camera is not original – no doubt people will mention The Blair Witch Project, The Last Broadcast and further back Cannibal Holocaust...and for that matter Cloverfield, released in cinemas around the same time as Diary. However, there is a difference. Blair Witch for example presents itself as the unmediated footage of its makers. There is a frame – the information that this footage was found later and assembled – but that's all. However, in Diary (as it is in Cannibal Holocaust) Romero develops the frame so that it explicitly comments on the material: Debra (Amy Lalonde) narrates the footage, which is presented as an edited documentary called The Death of Death. She even goes on to say that she has added music “for entertainment value”. She also includes material shot by others and uploaded to the Internet.
Instead of simply blurring fiction with reality, Romero is asking bigger questions. Does the camera really never lie? Can the camera eye always remain neutral? Should it simply observe or can the filmmaker ever intervene? In asking these questions, Romero harks back to two films that were released in the same year as Night of the Living Dead: Medium Cool and David Holzman's Diary. Neither of those is a horror film, though they are still quite dark, the latter especially. Further abck still, there is of course Peeping Tom. The final sequence, where a group of men use corpses for shooting practice, ends the film on a sobering note.
The inclusion of such commentary in what could simply have been ninety minutes of gore and gutmunching has always distinguished Romero's zombie films. But that would be nothing if he hadn't delivered the goods as well. Diary features novel uses of a scythe and a defibrillator that I suggest you don't try at home.
You don't go to a Romero film for the acting (generally, though it's certainly capable) and it's fair to say that some of the characters are a little stock, notably Scott Wentworth's world-weary professor. On the other hand, he continues his tradition of strong, non-stereotypical women in leading roles., not to mention a black man in a key supporting role. Diary tends to lose momentum in its last third. But the lower budget and the independence it has given him have lent Romero a shot in the arm. <>Diary of the Dead finds him right back on form.
Optimum have released two versions of Diary of the Dead: a single-discer and the Two-Disc Special Edition under review. Both discs are encoded for Region 2 only. The first disc opens with trailers for All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, The Orphanage and Storm Warning.
The DVD transfer is anamorphic and in the ratio of 1.78:1, which given the premise is appropriate, as that is the native aspect ratio of digital video. However, the film would almost certainly have been shown in cinemas in 1.85:1. However, this isn't the most tightly composed film ever made, given that it is mostly shot handheld, so the difference between the two is hardly worth bothering with. Given that the film is intended to look like it was shot on the run, in natural light, it looks fine. Shadow detail isn't what you would expect on a 35mm feature, but I'm sure that's intentional.
The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 5.1 but the film is mostly front and centre with some directional effects. There is an alternative in Dolby Surround, and subtitles are available for the hard-of-hearing.
The commentary features Romero, editor Michael Doherty and DP Adam Swica. This is brought to you by twenty-first technology: Romero is in Paris (France), the other two in Toronto, but their chat is in real time. This is mostly a nuts-and-bolts commentary with particular emphasis on how certain shots and effects were achieved, but it's worth listening to.
Disc One has a few more extras. “Into the Camera” (17:05) is a series of interviews with Romero and the principal cast. “Speak of the Dead” (15:57) features Romero on stage at the Bloor Cinema, Toronto, talking about his career and influences.
Disc Two is subdivided into five sections. The first is “Making Of”, which comprises four short items, with a play-all option. “Master of the Dead” (13:21) is yet another interview with Romero, this time interspersed with tributes from the five producers of Diary. “You Look Dead!” (10:58) demonstrates how the practical make-up effects were achieved. However, in this day and age CGI and visual effects are part of the filmmaker's toolbox and “A New 'Spin on Death'” (19:03) looks at the work of Spin VFX. Finally, “A World Gone Mad” (20:24) focuses on the work of the director of photography and the production designer. Also in this section is a link to the green label (all audiences) theatrical trailer (1:56).
“Romero Speaks” contains just one item: Romero's interview (19:05) at the film's UK premiere at Frightfest in 2007. Given the amount of interviews Romero has on this DVD, there's inevitably repetition.
“Playing Dead” has two items. “Character Confessionals” (20:38) feature the cast talking to the camera while remaining in character. The conceit here is that Jason Creed shot these sequences while the events of Diary went on around them, but they do not form part of the main feature. On the soundtrack you can hear voiceovers from, among others, Guillermo Del Toro, Simon Pegg and Stephen King and “Familiar Voices” details the recording of them.
Another two items are grouped under “Shorts”. “The First Week” is behind-the-scenes footage from the first week of shooting, as captured by local filmmaker Michael Felsher. In “The Roots” (2:03), Romero discusses his inspirations for his zombie films.
The final section has a feature-length documentary, “One for the Fire” (83:56) is a look back at the film which started it all, Night of the Living Dead. The surviving cast and crew, not to mention Romero, revisit the locations where the film was shot and discuss the making of the film and remember those who ha died, notably leading man Duane Jones. One of the interviewees is Karl Hardman, who died shortly later: the documentary is dedicated to him.
That's a lot of extras. Inevitably there's some filler there, and also quite a bit of repetition considering how many times Romero js interviewed. But there's quite a bit to get your teeth into as well.