It would be easy to dismiss “Diary of the Dead” as a well-intentioned misfire, but credit George Romero for his tireless ambition. The pioneering “Night of the Living Dead” director seems intent on rebooting his signature franchise for the 21st century, 40 years after he first assaulted an unsuspecting world with his vision of flesh-hungry zombies clawing their way through the western Pennsylvania countryside.
With Romero, there’s always a message in the madness, and “Diary” finds him once again using the undead as a device for social satire. While his initial venture into the genre was, at one level, a blistering critique of America’s role in the Vietnam War and the televised brutality resulting from it, his latest re-imagines the apocalypse in a YouTube world.
As society collapses beneath a tide of reanimated corpses, aspiring documentarian Jason (Joshua Close) obsessively films every severed limb and slashed neck, a passive witness to the slaughter.
When Jason’s girlfriend (Michelle Morgan) dryly notes that reality just wouldn’t be the same without a video camera to capture it, the implication is clear: We have become willing voyeurs in a culture of mindless self-absorption, even as the fate of the world hangs in the balance.
It is a point Romero drives home early and often, and if his ponderous lack of subtlety seems unbecoming in such a sophisticated storyteller, it hardly invalidates his message.
But is it entertaining? Yes, when it stops taking itself so seriously. At 68, Romero is still the most ambitious auteur in the zombie game, and though his approach here is sometimes heavy-handed, his wicked sense of humor remains intact.
Jason and his band of harried survivalists (including a tipsy professor who seems to be channeling the spirit of Richard Burton) dispose of their slow-moving assailants with a certain élan, even using a defibrillator to fry one’s eyeballs. It is a gruesome spectacle, graphic enough to make you wince but comically overwrought.
“Diary of the Dead” is less a sequel than it is a modern-day reinvention for the MySpace generation. It is the second film already this year, after “Cloverfield,” to be shot from the first-person perspective, as Romero frames his story within the context of Jason’s on-the-fly documentary, “The Death of Death.”
The results are about what you might expect from a student filmmaker operating without a budget or a script — crude and amateurish, with occasional (and possibly unintentional) flashes of brilliance. “Diary” is no different. With its clunky dialogue and obvious symbolism, this is not Romero’s best work — far from it — but it’s refreshing to see him doing something new with the genre he helped to create.
Even when his social commentaries fall flat, they are alive with the kind of sharp, subversive wit that might elude your average, media-obsessed zombie.
Diary of the Dead (two and half stars)
Starring Michelle Morgan, Joshua Close, Shawn Roberts, Amy Ciupak Lalonde, Joe Dinicol
Written and directed by George A. Romero
Running time 1 hour 35 minutes