Saturday, May 25, 2024

Zombie Fest: Diary of the Dead

If there was a zombie apocalypse, would you believe the information provided by the government? Would you have answered differently before the Covid pandemic? In many ways, the fifth of George A. Romero’s six Living Dead films screens differently now than when it first released. However, the laws of zombiedom remain the same. You still must aim for the head in Romero’s Diary of the Dead, which screens tomorrow as part of the Mahoning Drive-In’s Zombie Fest.

The zombie outbreak just started and boy, is the local Pittsburgh media ever surprised. They broadcast some of the only video showing a zombie coming back to life (and biting the reporter). Soon, censorship becomes widespread, but the truth constantly leaks out on social media. That is why film student Jason Creed is so determined to document everything with the cameras he was using for his student film.

Yes, this was George Romero doing found footage, but it is professional looking found footage. We understand from the start this film was edited together by Debra Moynihan, Creed’s girlfriend. She admits she was less than thrilled with Creed filming everything at the time, but she now agrees it was necessary.

Creed might have been a jerk, but at least he went back to the dorms for her. He and the rest of the crew also agree to drive to Scranton, so she can check on her parents. Along the way, they have several fraught encounters with zombies and heavily armed survivors that reflect Romero’s political perspective.

Right from the start, Romero’s screenplay blasts government censorship, dismissing self-serving excuses, like preventing panic is in the public interest, or whatever. When
Diary was produced, the obvious point of reference for disasters was Hurricane Katrina, while most handwringing regarding government disclosures would have focused on the War on Terror. In the era of social media companies censoring and deplatforming people at the government’s behest, you have to wonder if Diary could even get produced as Romero original wrote it, in the current media climate.

Frankly, in many ways it seems prescient. Beyond censorship/mis/disinformation issues, when Creed’s film professor, Dr. Andrew Maxwell adopts a bow and arrows as his weapon of choice, he predates Norman Reedus’s crossbow on
The Walking Dead, by about three years.

In fact, Scott Wentworth is enormously entertaining as the sardonic and boozy Dr. Maxwell. Michelle Morgan is also a quite a forceful, no-nonsense most-likely-to-survive central character. Unfortunately, the rest of the students are a bland lot, including Tatiana Maslany as the suicidal Christian. That was typical Romero, but at least Samuel, the deaf Amish farmer (portrayed by R.D. Reid) is sympathetic. Romero himself appears briefly, but plays it way over the top as the Pittsburgh police chief. Quentin Tarantino, Wes Craven, Guillermo del Toro, and Stephen King also have audio cameos as radio newscasters.

Romero’s 2000s
Living Dead films are not as well-regarded as his first three, but Diary has a lot of snappy zombie business going on, including one of the best zombie’s deaths of the entire franchise (involving a jar of acid). Easily recommended as a solid franchise installment, especially in retrospect, Diary of the Living Dead screens tomorrow night (5/26) at the Mahoning Drive-In. Also, condolences to the Mahoning employees and regulars over the death of their beloved owner/projectionist Jeff Mattox.