George A. Romero's impact on zombie cinema is seismic: Night of the Living Dead, his shoestring '68 debut, is a flesh-eating frightfest of the first order, and one that has loomed large over subsequent decades of the ambulatory-cadaver genre, good, bad and horrific.
The fact that Romero, in Night of the Living Dead and again with 1978's Dawn of the Dead, managed to tap into zeitgeistian moments in our culture - race relations, and the malling of America, respectively - made his crude gore all the more resonant.
Perhaps it was inevitable, given the legion of imitators and homage-ists that have come since, but Diary of the Dead, Romero's fifth Dead film in 40 years, seems poky and pedestrian by contrast. Even the zeitgeist thing - Diary of the Dead is all about the blogosphere, the text-messaging, camcording laptoppers of today - seems stale. Maybe if Diary of the Dead had come out before Cloverfield instead of after. . . .
And maybe if The Blair Witch Project hadn't come out at all, the idea of a group of college kids making a cheap mummy movie (The Death of Death, it's called) and then turning their cameras (and cell phones) on a rampant swarm of the undead, documenting the horror and the carnage all around them, might seem original.
Diary of the Dead is cast with little-known twentysomething Canadians (Romero long ago blew Western Pennsylvania for Toronto), and shot in a herky-jerky, subjective POV to get that certain I'm-fleeing-for-my-life-and-my-girlfriend's-getting-her-limbs-
chomped-off-but-darned-if-I'm-go-ing-to-drop-this-camera touch. The performances range from aghast to ghastly, and Romero intercuts the students-on-the-run stuff with recycled video footage (Hurricane Katrina and other disasters) and news reports showing that the zombie madness isn't confined to a small geographic area: Looting and killing are going on all over.
One warning from a panicky Tokyo woman comes by way of Webcast: "Don't leave dead, shoot first in head," she advises, because the only way to make sure the dead stay that way is by sending a bullet - or some other pointy projectile - through their brain matter.
Moderately scary, moderately amusing, intermittently dull and obvious, Diary of the Dead is not groundbreaking, nor even ground-quaking. The dead rise from their gurneys and their graves and wobble around menacingly, and mankind is shown in an unflattering light, selfish, narcissistic, and pretty much helpless when their Internet connection goes down.
Diary of the Dead ** (out of four stars)
Directed by George A. Romero. With Josh Close, Amy Lalonde, Michelle Morgan, Shawn Roberts, and others. Distributed by the Weinstein Co.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 mins.
Parent's guide: R (violence, gore, profanity, adult themes)
Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse and United Artists King of Prussia
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or email@example.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.