Scaling back the broad sweep of previous horror opus “Land of the Dead” and largely jettisoning the increasingly comedic possibilities of the concept in favor of pointed, impassioned social criticism and close-in genre thrills, gore’s godfather audaciously and successfully reboots his incalculably influential zombie franchise as a lean, mean teen-survival machine in “George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead.” Gripping, intimate genre triumph reps a not-insurmountable marketing challenge in the wake of “Land”‘s larger canvas, with emphasis on college-age protags and their tech wizardry sure to inject the fan base with copious new blood.
Fifth franchise entry might best be viewed as a provocative inverse of “The Blair Witch Project,” with which it shares a general p.o.v. structure and some themes. At its heart a stinging indictment of child-rearing practices that produced sullen offspring, incapable of thinking for themselves or working in groups during a crisis situation, “Witch” has given way, less than a decade later, to “Diary'”s bevy of confident, savvy coeds.
These go-getters are highly motivated for success via self-expression, and possess the vidcam and Internet tech chops to attract attention to themselves by getting their personal projects made and circulated. In short, they create content to validate their own existence.
Though set in the present day, “Diary” rewinds to the mysterious zombie outbreak that set the franchise in motion. Suspicious of lies being fed through the mainstream media as society disintegrates, a surviving member of a student film crew has assembled a docu, “The Death of Death,” from the crew’s own footage and Internet grabs, as testament to what really went down. (The survivor apologetically warns that some music cues and thrills have been added for entertainment value.)
“The Death of Death” begins as compulsive filmmaker Jason Creed (Josh Close) tries to finish a student mummy film in the Pennsylvania woods. Hearing of the zombie crisis on the radio, lead actor Ridley (Philip Riccio) takes off in his expensive sports car for the family compound across the state, leaving cast and crew to fend for themselves in a rickety RV.
In addition to Jason, behind the camera and thus seldom seen for much of the movie, the core group for the bulk of the action includes his disgruntled g.f. Debra (Michelle Morgan); disbelieving film school rival Tony (Shawn Roberts); mummy scream queen and real-life Texas firecracker Tracy (Amy Lalonde); tech dweeb Eliot (Joe Dinicol); and cynically alcoholic Brit prof Maxwell (Scott Wentworth).
During their mad dash to Debra’s house in Scranton, they encounter a nearly deserted rural hospital, an Amish farmer whose deafness doesn’t impede his resourcefulness, a gaggle of renegade National Guardsmen and, eventually, Ridley’s deceptively fortress-like mansion.
If the actual body count is relatively low, Romero’s inspiration level is sky-high; at 67, he’s got his finger squarely on the pulse of the younger generation’s facile relationship with media and technology. He’s also brought his always healthy skepticism of broadcasting and government to the fore; it’s giving nothing away to point to pic’s sad, brutal coda as one of the most powerful antiwar statements since America invaded Iraq.
Pic also reps a watershed in Romero’s direction of actors. As Debra, Morgan is easily the most swaggeringly self-confident heroine of any “Dead” adventure, while Lalonde does a terrific job balancing the humor inherent in her story arc with genuine fear.
Production values are precisely what they need to be. Other than some perfectly miked characters deep in the frame, illusion of pic being stitched together from vidcam footage, Internet video and surveillance cameras is entirely logical. Decision to massage good, old-fashioned latex with CGI splatter pays off in imaginative and startling gags, produced with Greg Nicotero, Gaslight Effects and Spin. Ontario locations stand in nicely once again for rural Pennsylvania.
How influential is Romero’s work? Closing credit crawl gives special thanks to Romero pals, disciples and supporters Wes Craven, Guillermo del Toro, Simon Pegg, Stephen King, Quentin Tarantino and Tom Savini. They should be proud.