There is a brief moment in the last act of George Romero's Diary of the Dead where we see a shot of a woman from the back, sitting in a high back leather arm chair, a cigarette sending up a plume of smoke. You can't see the woman's face, just the top of her head, as well as her hand holding the cigarette. It's a startling moment in that it seems lifted from an entirely different film - as if Diary of the Dead has suddenly morphed into film-noir.
But see, that's the thing; Diary of the Dead, for better or worse, is several different films rolled into one.
First and foremost, it is of course a horror film - a so called, "re-boot" of the Romero Dead Mythos. In Diary's universe, the first instance of the living dead is occurring in the modern day. A world of cell phones and cable news, Internet access and instant messaging. There's no need to find a television in the basement of a farm house, or tune in to an AM radio station, the news is coming in from everywhere and every place at mind numbing speeds (fans of Romero, will no doubt recall that the media played a big roll in Dawn of the Dead's opening scene which took place in a television studio).
Just before all hell brakes loose, we meet a group of young filmmakers and their teacher, making a horror movie somewhere in the woods of Pennsylvania. Thanks to the lightning speed that information travels, it does not take long for the posse of students to find out that the unbelievable is happening, and as such, movie maker, Jason Creed (Joshua Close), picks up his camera and documents the entire event as it is happening... and this is where the second movie, a documentary of sorts, begins (with much less jerky camera movements than in say, Cloverfield or The Blair Witch Project). This is also where Diary... begins to ask the questions like: Why do we as a society seem so detached from all of the suffering and horror we see on a daily basis? Is it that we are all just numb? Is the 24 hour/7 day a week news-feed that is available working like anesthesia on us as a whole?
As the hapless cadre of survivors attempt to make it back to safety, they encounter fiendish military men, a helpful (but ultimately doomed) deaf Amish farmer, a group of African American survivalists, and of course, flesh eating zombies.
Oh yes, the zombies! That's what we've come to see, kids, the monsters. Well, they don't disappoint. You've got your basic shambling walking dead: Cop zombies, hillbilly zombies, nurse zombies, and, god help me, one of the most horrifying: a clown zombie seen briefly terrifying a suburban child's birthday party... Of course this being a zombie film, dispatching the blasted things is necessary. By now everyone knows a bullet to the brain is the best way to put the pests down, but how about a defibrillator (paddles to the head- CLEAR!) ? Or maybe a scythe? Or hows abouts my fave: a bottle of hydrochloric acid smashed over the head of one of the bastards - sheer fucking genius - watch as the acid eats away at the zombie's noggin and slowly dissolves his brain.
While the gore is flying fast and furious, you will also notice the social commentary doing the same. George Romero has never been a subtle film maker (which is what I love about the guy), he is a cantankerous product of the 60's who is still pissed off by what he sees - so he uses ghouls as his raison d'etre, and that allows him to vent about what is really bothering him. Frankly, I applauded all of the "messages" , as heavy handed as they might have been, in Diary of the Dead. Would that other film makers today be as committed to inform as well as entertain, we'd be much better off.
Be that as it may, when our heroes (minus several who have met their ends) finally get to the mansion of a friend, we are in yet another movie ... suddenly Diary of the Dead becomes The Ten Little Indians: a group of people wandering about a spacious mansion, and one by one they are meeting an untimely ending. It is during the third act that the afore mentioned "noir moment" occurs, and it's a beautiful, albeit, brief moment in the film.
By movie's end, with the filmmaker dead, and another student, Debra (Michelle Morgan) picking up the camera to finish what he started, Diary... shows us it's most brutal view of mankind: Debra narrates some found footage of a couple of rednecks hunting zombies for sport in the woods. We see that the creeps are now tying zombies to trees for target practice, and finally we watch as they take aim at a female zombie hanging from a tree limb by her hair. The rednecks end up looping off the woman's body leaving the top of her head still attached to the tree while Debra asks in a voice over: Are we really worth saving? You tell me. Of course, the viewer can not help but think of the photographs from Abu Ghraib of American solders tormenting prisoners of war...and I am sure that Romero meant for us to associate that scene with the infamous photographs.
In the end, Diary of the Dead leaves the viewer with a lot to chew on (sorry, I could not resist), and maybe that is a good thing. Are we numb? Are we insensitive? Are we media obsessed? Are we really the monsters? And, Are we really worth saving?
You tell me.