When most filmmakers set out to deliver the fifth chapter in a (very) well-admired series, their method is usually the "play it safe" one: Give the fans more of the same, with perhaps a few new brush-strokes, and just wait for the cash to roll in. This is the low-risk way of keeping a franchise alive. The resulting films are usually flat, if not downright terrible, but hey, it's one more revenue stream kept alive, right?
That's part of what makes George Romero's Diary of the Dead such an unexpected treat. The man pretty much invented the zombie genre (as we know it, anyway) so if he wanted to churn out a few more flicks like Land of the Dead, we'd probably still line up to see 'em -- but Diary of the Dead is more than just a simple departure from formula. It's actually a "re-boot" that takes us back to the beginning of the zombie apocalypse than Romero first presented way back in 1968. That seems like a fairly risky experiment, fanbase-wise, but whether you dig the Diary or not, one must admit that Romero going back to his indie roots and working with a bunch of younger filmmakers is pretty admirable. It's not like the guy has to work these days...
You may have heard Diary of the Dead described as "Romero meets Blair Witch," and that's a fairly apt description ... to a point. The movie opens with a bunch of student filmmakers who are deep in the forest, working on a horror movie of their own. Slowly but surely the news comes across the wire: Somehow the dead are returning to life. And since Diary exists in a universe that never saw Night, Dawn, Day, or Land of the Dead, they have no freakin' idea what's going on. We then join the (slowly dwindling) group of young survivors as they race across Pennsylvania in a camper, desperate to find some answers, survivors, or (they hope) some still-breathing family members.
It sounds like a pretty conventional zombie tale (and in many respects it actually is), but what makes Diary of the Dead a bit more novel is that it borrows that "first-person" camera style that first hit big in Blair Witch, but has recently been utilized in films like Cloverfield, [REC], and the upcoming Quarantine. Some simply don't care for the handheld-camera gimmick, but I say if it works well and in the service of the story ... then work that gimmick! As he has in all his previous flicks (zombie-laden or otherwise), Mr. Romero is clever enough to drop some none-too-subtle social commentary into the morbid proceedings. This time around he's poking sticks at the mass media, internet culture, and the omnipotent impact of "the camera." Best of all, the master horror-maker is astute enough to sprinkle his "messages" around in the midst of a simply clever little horror movie. You'll "get" his subtext (which is barely subtext, really), but none of it is preachy or obvious. Plus the movie's got some really slick kills, a handful of gooey gore, some surprisingly funny moments, and a few leading ladies that are exceedingly easy on the eyes.
Plus the DVD is aces across the board! Dimension Extreme unleashes what's probably their best package yet, with the film delivered in a very solid widescreen format and audio presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, with optional subtitles in English and Spanish. Get a load of these extras:
Fans will ne doubt appreciate the full-length audio commentary between writer / director George Romero, cinematographer Adam Swica, and editor Michael Doherty. The zombie lord has no problem finding things to talk about, but his two crew members add some solid insights as well, resulting in a very fine little chat-track. Then we get a feature-length documentary called For the Record: The Making of Diary of the Dead, which is broken up into five chapters: Master of the Dead: writer / director George Romero (13:18), Into the Camera: The Cast (17:05), You Look Dead!: Make-Up Effects (10:56), A New "Spin" on Death: Visual Effects (19:00), and A World Gone Mad: Photography & Design (20:23). Taken as one large piece, For the Record is a superlative piece of DVD goodness. Packed with tons of cast & crew interviews, lots of on-set footage, and numerous interesting things about the movie, this might be one of the best "making-of" docos of the year.
Oh, but then there's a lot more good stuff: Over 20 minutes of deleted "character confessionals," in which the young cast talks to the camera about all the crazy mayhem; a cute little 4-minute visit to The First Week of shooting; a brief (2-minute) piece that covers The Roots of the project; a 5-minute section of audio clips from some of the movie's "familiar voices," and five short films from a MySpace zombie competition. All in all, a stellar DVD package for the undead-heads. Highly recommended!