Where will you be when the world ends? When it comes to apocalyptic movies, the beginning has always been my favorite part. Sure, its fun to see the aftermath, what the world looks like when the dust settles, but what I find absolutely intriguing is what happens in those defining moments when normalcy gets flipped on its head. This is a huge reason why I’ve always enjoyed George A. Romero’s films. Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead are (among other things) about what happens in the moment when the world ends. Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead are films about how people are doing after-the-fact. Good movies, but they’re missing that special punch. As we discuss Diary of the Dead, let that defining question sink in, that is, What will you do when the world ends?
Before we continue, feast your eyes on this amazing IMDb synopsis:
“A group of young film students run into real-life zombies while filming a horror movie of their own.”
You know…this isn’t a horrible synopsis…not very in-depth, but not inaccurate. The movie opens on the set of a mummy in the forest movie. Why is there a mummy in the forest? I don’t know, but seeing how there is a serious lack of mummy movies nowadays, I for one appreciate their efforts. Even if its for a school project. The students are in the midst of re-shooting the “monster” scene when news of strange and curious events begins to ding their iPhone’s and whatnot. Breaking News that starts out as a series of riots, reports of bites and oddly looking drugged persons. Reports of people believed dead now…not. There’s a heaviness in the air. A foreboding. And as per horror movie trope, the group of film students splits…marginally. The Mummy rich kid takes off with one of the ladies for his parent’s mansion on the hills leaving the rest to decide what to do next…
Our band of misfits decide to go after Jason’s girlfriend, back at the University dorm located in…you guessed it, Pittsburgh. Come on, this wouldn’t be a true Romero flick if it wasn’t set in The Burgh. The film follows Jason, as his point of view (POV) is the movie itself, and it travels in a rather natural trajectory. And we get to go along for the ride in a cool as fuck Winnebago. The following scenes give the cast of no-name-actors (which if great BTW) a chance to figure out what exactly is going on in the world. Clips and news feeds are spliced into the movie, my favorite being the one with the dead dude on the gurney suddenly lurching to life and going after the paramedics. And there are others, all showing us events as its happening.
The story follows what i’d call a natural progression. They have a basic mission, pick up Jason’s girlfriend at the University. But enroute things begin to unravel. And these would-be film students begin to understand that whatever is happening, it is not some riot. Even in the dorms, people have started looting. Most of the students have fled home. As Debra (Jason’s girlfriend) says in a voiceover, “It’s funny. You spend so much time resenting your parents, separating yourself, building your own life. But as soon as the shit hits the fan, the only place you want to go is home.”
From University dorm to hospital to Amish farm to a warehouse in the city to the rich Mummy’s parents place up on the hills, Diary of the Dead takes us on a wild bloody ride into what the world looks like when the unthinkable happens, when the monsters become less metaphorical and more literal. With plenty of quotables along the way.
Diary of the Dead is filmed in “found footage” style. Before you roll your eyes, lets give this seemingly yet another addition to the already overflowing pile of found footage films a chance. Found footage is of course no stranger to horror. With films like Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activities, Cloverfield, Grave Encounters, among many many many more in the niche sub-genre, you’d think our appetites are pretty much satiated.
Romero takes that niche and blends in his undead universe. Some have called it a “reset” button, but unless its truly a reset i’d hate to use those kinds of terms. This is more of just another zombie movie, does it have to fit within the lexicon? I’d be more apt to let this one stand on its own as a closer examination of what people do when the world ends as its happening, and not locked away on some farmhouse, but on the frontlines. This is a movie every bit in the trenches, as much as it can be.
Diary of the Dead is not everyone’s cup of tea. Romero has received plenty of backlash for pandering to the “found footage” trope. But given how popular YouTube and social media and capturing every little visage of our lives as we want it to be portrayed is so popularized, Diary of the Dead takes that aimed perfection and twists the notion of truth and action and begs the question if humanity is even worth saving. As Debra says at the end…
“Jason once said he thought he could help, maybe even save some lives. This is the last thing he downloaded before he died: a couple of hometown Joes who went out to shoot at targets. But that day, they used people. Dead people. You know, just for fun? There was one target that was different from the rest. A woman… tied by her hair to the branch of a tree. The boys had this one set up just for kicks. They got out their favorite 12 gauge and…
[zombie’s head is blown in half]
Are we worth saving? You tell me.”
And that’s the question we must all ask, is it not? Personally speaking, watching the news nowadays utterly terrifies me. The thought of nukes flying amongst all this political squabble amidst all these super-storms, it really paints a picture how one could imagine the world ending. In my own book series Planet of the Dead, and now War for the Planet of the Dead, I took my fears and anxiety and (hopefully) created a unique blend of apocalyptic horror, political satire, and realism. While Diary of the Dead may not top Romero’s previous flicks, it certainly does an excellent job forcing us to at least face the question…what will you do when the world ends?
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