2 Stars Movies

The George A. Romero Zombie Cycle Part 5: Diary of the Dead

This is not an opinion you’re likely to find anywhere else on the internet, but we are prepared to argue that Diary of the Dead is one of the best of the entire George A. Romero zombie cycle. It sports the best special effects, is the least repetitive or trigger-happy, and is a welcome return to the focused social satire of the first (Night) and second (Dawn) installments.

Curiously, Diary of the Dead is the first to break the continuity of Romero’s ongoing story of society in zombie meltdown. The first four films follow a rough chronology: Night of the Living Dead depicts the initial wave as seen by a small group caught in a country farmhouse. Dawn of the Dead takes place a few weeks later, showing the breakdown of cities (and even the media). Day of the Dead featured an isolated group surviving in isolation as the world was long since overrun by the undead. Land of the Dead shows the ultimate gated community fall to an evolved zombie horde. But Diary of the Dead is a return to the early days of the outbreak, a more fertile ground for storytelling: you never get tired of human characters witnessing such horrors for the first time.

Diary of the Dead
Saving the human race, one nonfiction documentary short subject at a time

The rules are still the same: simply, the dead don’t stay dead. The zombie epidemic is not due to a plague or virus, which was the potent contribution of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later to the zombie genre. Arguably, Romero’s concept is more bleak. A virus might be mitigated or even cured, but if anybody, anybody at all, that dies will revive as a unintelligent carnivorous monster that feels no pain and never tires, it cannot be stopped. If humanity is to somehow regroup and survive, it will forever have to burn or decapitate anyone that ever dies.

Diary of the Dead opens on a group of University of Pittsburgh film students making a tongue-in-cheeck mummy movie in the woods of Pennsylvania, under the guidance of alcoholic Professor Maxwell (Scott Wentworth). Many of these kids are privileged, but judging from the events of Romero’s other films, we know that the luxuries of the rich are of little worth against the living dead. But none of these movie aficionados have ever seen any of Romero’s films, otherwise they’d be more prepared.

One of them, Eliot (Joe Dinicol), wears Coke-bottle glasses in an apparent homage to Romero’s famous spectacles. Budding director Jason Creed (Joshua Close) looks down his nose on the commercial horror genre, and has the not-so-secret ambition to become a documentary filmmaker. But Jason gets his chance to do both, as he documents their their flight from a real-life plague of zombies. Jason’s footage, later completed by girlfriend Debra (Michelle Morgan) comprises a film within a film: “The Death of Death.”

Diary of the Dead
Romero’s scathing indictment of our broken health care system, or just some more zombie gore?

In a world in which nearly everyone carries a cellphone camera around in their pocket, “shoot me” can have a different meaning than you usually hear in zombie movies. With a batch of young filmmakers documenting a real-life tale of horror using new portable video technology, Diary of the Dead superficially resembles Cloverfield. One of Cloverfield‘s most telling moments showed a group of New Yorkers instinctively reacting to the horrible sight of a chunk of the Statue of Liberty hurtling into the middle of a street by whipping out their cell phone cameras and taking pictures to transmit to their friends.

But Diary of the Dead‘s true inspiration is actually a bit older; it rips off the basic plot of The Blair Witch Project, in which a batch of student filmmakers set off to shoot a horror film in the woods and accidentally stumble onto the real thing. Cloverfield became increasingly implausible as the fleeing teenagers cling to their cameras throughout their travails. In contrast, Diary of the Dead surprisingly sports more believable psychology than Cloverfield, constantly questioning its characters’ compulsion to document everything. Indeed, it’s one of the biggest themes of the movie.

Diary‘s mix of themes also includes the return of the media as a prominent presence for the first time since Night and Dawn. In what I felt was one the film’s only dramatic missteps, the characters first learn of the zombie breakout via radio (really? radio? in an age of instant text messaging?), and are convinced of the incredible news reports a little too quickly. But perhaps their immediate acceptance of what the voices of authority tell them is one of Romero’s points.

Two characters in Dawn of the Dead were media professionals, working in broadcast news. But in this case, something only possible in the 21st century internet age, the Diary of the Dead kids are able to become part of the medium itself. Jason starts out as a frustrated documentarian making a silly commercial mummy film, but given the chance he chooses to document. As citizen journalists, they edit their footage on laptops and post to YouTube and MySpace. They also download other clips from around the world, providing the film with what are basically a series of short vignettes. They watch as a U.S. SWAT team cleans out zombies from an apartment complex, and as counterparts on the other side of the globe document an overrun Japan. One of the spookiest clips is a brief shot from the point of view of a truck driving under a bridge from which someone has hung themselves. After the truck cab jostles the corpse, it starts to move.

Three radio monologues were voiced by horror genre luminaries Guillermo Del Toro (whose ghost story Devil’s Backbone shares some elements of the zombie genre), Simon Pegg (who paid homage to the genre as comedy with Shawn of the Dead), and Stephen King (brilliant as a heartland evangelical preacher: “Get down on your &$#@ing knees!”). There’s also a funny bit featuring a badass Amish guy, who’s deaf but handy with a scythe and dynamite.

The ending to this very short movie (a little over 90 minutes) is a bit abrupt. But given that it is narrated by Debra, it is possible she has survived beyond what we’ve seen, long enough to release “The Death of Death” in some form, perhaps after humans have reclaimed the planet. One might imagine Diary‘s premise would lend itself to a lower budget than the grandiose Land of the Dead, which starred actual stars like Dennis Hopper and John Leguizombie — sorry — John Leguizamo. But Diary sports a bigger cast, more locations, and even more accomplished CG, so it can hardly have been cheaper to make.

You’ve been reading an entry in the our George A. Romero Zombie Cycle Film Festival. Join us in revisiting all five canonical episodes in the original epic zombie saga:

1 Star Movies

The George A. Romero Zombie Cycle Part 4: Land of the Dead

George A. Romero’s sporadic zombie flicks are sometimes decades apart in production, but nevertheless form a chronological sequence telling the story of the downfall of society from every angle. Night of the Living Dead (1968) is set in the early days, with a few random civilians trapped in a farmhouse. Dawn of the Dead (1979) zooms out a little to see what’s going on in cities and suburbia, and Day of the Dead (1985) examines a final remaining pocket of survivors months into the plague.

Land of the Dead opens some time after the zombie epidemic has swept the world, and the surviving dregs of humanity have retreated behind the fortified walls of the ultimate gated community, a city dubbed Fiddler’s Green. Romero has used each of his zombie films to satirically articulate some social commentary, and here his targets seem to be big business and class warfare. Another possible allegorical target is the Israel / Palestine conflict. Have humans walled the zombies out, or walled themselves in?

A man named Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) has set himself up as mayor/president/king of Fiddler’s Green. Kaufman is very much a self-styled, capital-B businessman along the lines of Donald Trump or Michael Bloomberg, so here Romero seems to equate big business with totalitarianism. Kaufman’s machinations ensure that his supposed safe haven is actually a highly tiered class society. The rich live in high-rise comfort while the underclasses starve in skeezy street-level slums. We know society is truly depraved when caged go-go dancers are the only form of entertainment.

Eugene Clark in George A. Romero's Land of the Dead
Wet zombies smell like wet, uh, zombies.

In the world outside, the zombies have long since eaten all humans within reach, and have nothing left to do but stand around. Despite the big budget, there only seem to be about a dozen of them. Some have returned to old routines: working gas stations, pushing shopping carts, and banging tambourines. Dawn of the Dead showed zombies instinctually drawn to the shopping mall (a new American innovation at the time) like pilgrims to Mecca. But Land of the Dead goes further and suggests they have even greater powers of logic, and can feel actual emotions such as victimization. Their leader Big Daddy (Eugene Clark) is soulful and sympathetic like Bub the zombie from Day of the Dead.

Kaufman sends minions Riley (Nathan Fillon) and Cholo (John Leguizamo) out into the infested wastelands, in caravans of heavily armored vehicles. They distract the “stench” (the derogatory term of choice for the undead) with fireworks as they loot for food and valuables to cart back to stock Kaufman’s larders in Fiddler’s Green. Riley and Cholo are old friends since fallen out, and their relationship provides the one genuinely funny bit of dialogue: happy-go-lucky Cholo tells the perpetually dour Riley: “Didn’t I tell you not to bang chicks with worse problems than you?” That’s not bad advice, actually.

The intelligent zombies, apparently feeling disenfranchised, organize and mount an attack on the city. Anyway, Riley and Cholo finally become disillusioned about Kaufman’s utopia. Together with Slack (Asia Argento, daughter of Dario Argento, who collaborated with Romero on Dawn of the Dead), they try to escape for the imagined safe haven of Canada (as if they think they are merely dodging the draft, and not the twin threats of plague and humanity’s own venal overlords). In true Romero fashion, the villainous Kaufman also happens to be a racist, shouting epithets at the zombified Cholo (John Leguizombie?) as he comes to kill him. If there ever were a point in human history when race will have truly become irrelevant, this ought to be it.

Dennis Hopper as Donald Trump — the mayor from hell, or is that the mayor OF hell?

I don’t think Romero and his zombie films would be remembered without the racially charged ending of Night of the Living Dead and the pointed satire of consumerism found in Dawn of the Dead. But if he had started out with something as unfocused as Land of the Dead, he probably wouldn’t have been. Romero admits to Parallax View that he didn’t fully work out the analogy:

I have to tell you that even when we started to shoot, I was worried that this isn’t quite clear. Who are the terrorists, is it Cholo and his gang or the zombies? And it gave me a little pause, but we had to start shooting because we had the money. I.m being perfectly honest, I have to sit down and re-analyze it and figure it out. Sometimes you just run on instinct.

George A. Romero

Even the roundtable of horror aficionados on agree that the movie is “not scary, but really gross.”

Land of the Dead obviously has the biggest budget of all of Romero’s zombie cycle so far, and remains the only one with well-known stars. But it is only superficially “better” than its predecessors, featuring bigger names and more technological polish. As is the case with many a Hollywood production, raised financial stakes bring a lowering of standards and diminishing returns: more money in, more shit out. A “some time ago…” prologue montage illustrates for the slower members of the audience what zombies are all about. Perhaps the movie studio executives were pitching the film to audiences beyond the usual horror genre ghetto already versed with the zombie genre.

You’ve been reading an entry in our George A. Romero Zombie Cycle Film Festival. Join us in revisiting all five canonical episodes in the original epic zombie saga:

Must read:’s extensive archive of Land of the Dead info.

Must read: The Light That Failed: George Romero’s Dead Rock On by Kathleen Murphy; and George Romero Surveys the Dead by Sean Axmaker, both on Parallax View.

1 Star Movies

The George A. Romero Zombie Cycle Part 3: Day of the Dead

Day of the Dead (1985) is the third episode in George A. Romero’s continuing tale of civilization’s collapse in the event of a global zombie epidemic. This and the big-budget Land of the Dead (2005) are tied for the worst entries in the series. What makes the first two (Night and Dawn) of merit is their surprisingly acute social satire, but here Romero loses his critical focus in favor of gore and general unpleasantry with little redeeming value.

After the initial wave of undead in Night of the Living Dead and the collapse of cities and suburbia in Dawn of the Dead, Romero now jumps still forward in time. Several months into the zombie plague, a dozen humans huddle isolated in an underground bunker. Their fortress is sufficient to protect them from the barbarians outside the gates, but they have lost radio contact with the outside world. They make occasional sorties to nearby cities via helicopter, but encounter nothing but more hordes of zombies. For all they know, they are the last humans on the planet.

Lori Cardille in Day of the Dead
When there’s no more room in hell, zombies will break through the styrofoam walls

The disparate batch of survivors in Night of the Living dead was essentially a cross-section of civilization, but Romero narrows his focus here onto the military and scientific worlds. The humans trapped underground include three scientists, two civilians, and seven soldiers. All of them are slowly losing their minds save for level-headed scientist Dr. Sarah Bowman (Lori Cardille), valiantly researching a cure. As is now customary in Romero’s zombie flicks, Sarah is an atypical protagonist for a horror movie. The most capable and sane character in Night of the Living Dead was a black man (Duane Jones), a huge deal for movies of any genre in 1968, and still rare now. Sarah is a woman, another social group historically subjugated by society, not to mention typically reduced to screaming eye candy in horror movies.

The nerve-wracking 28 Days Later (2002), director Danny Boyle’s contribution to the zombie genre, borrowed this scenario of an isolated batch of male soldiers acting without command, surrounded on all sides by hostile forces, and locked in a fortress with only one woman. Not surprisingly, things get ugly. To a one, the soldiers are despicably racist and illogical. But leader Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato) is actually correct about one key fact of their situation: the head scientist they have been ordered to defer to is indeed totally mad. Dr. Matthew “Frankenstein” Logan (Richard Liberty) is more interested in domesticating zombies into slaves than he is in either curing (as Sarah is trying to do) or eradicating them (as, naturally, the soldiers would have it). His star lab rat is a captive zombie dubbed Bub (Sherman Howard). The chained and tortured Bob is surprisingly sympathetic, possibly even moreso than heroine Sarah. He’s also the first instance in Romero’s movies of an intelligent, self-aware breed of zombie we won’t see again until twenty years later in Land of the Dead. But neither film makes much of the concept of zombies as a new life form, as opposed to the classic remorseless adversary typical for the genre.

Sherman Howard in Day of the Dead
Bub Zombie wants his MTV

As discussed in our review of Night of the Living Dead, one key aspect of the zombie genre that has fueled its continuing appeal over the years is that a plague is a great leveler. Everyone is vulnerable to disease. Everyone is equal after death (or is that undeath?), be they male or female, rich or poor, of any race. And for the survivors, once society breaks down (and it always does when the undead walk the streets), all the money and creature comforts in the world become irrelevant.

You’ve been reading an entry in our George A. Romero Zombie Cycle Film Festival. Join us in revisiting all five canonical episodes in the original epic zombie saga:

Must read: Homepage of the Dead’s complete Day of the Dead archives, including the original script

2 Stars Movies

The George A. Romero Zombie Cycle Part 1: Night of the Living Dead

I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing what is now recognized as the first zombie movie ever made: White Zombie (1932), starring none other than Bela Lugosi. But arguably, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) is the actual zombie urtext. It preceded the first of its four official sequels by almost a decade, but laid down the definitive template for the great flood of derivatives, remakes, homages, and ripoffs to come. Night of the Living Dead is in the public domain, and can be legally downloaded for free from

If there is any doubt as to the endurance of the genre, check out Wikipedia’s compilation of over 300 zombie-themed feature films. Zombies thrive online in the open-ended zombie narrative ZombieAttack slowly unfolding on Twitter, and in online shrines to the undead. Max Brooks has cornered the literary zombie field with his books The Zombie Survival Guide (2003) and World War Z (2006) (the first a disposable trifle, but the second a gripping tour de force). Zombies have invaded the Marvel Universe comics, ironic t-shirts, and hacked roadwork signs in Austin.

Night of the Living Dead

One may wonder about the mental health of such obsessive zombie fans, but now that this blog is hosting a Romero Zombie Cycle film Festival, I must now count myself among them. Also, the word “zombie” is just kind of fun to say. Zombie, zombie, zombie. Perhaps sensing the recent spike in the zombie zeitgeist, Romero himself has picked up the pace of his zombie cycle, adding fresh new entries in 2005 and 2007, with yet another planned for the near future.

What exactly is the appeal? The basic zombie conceit is uncomplicated. Indeed, the Night of the Living Dead marketing tagline “They won’t stay dead!” pretty much says it all. Simply, any and all dead people (no matter what the manner of their expiration) will inevitably come back to life as unthinking, unfeeling, carnivorous monsters. There’s something pure to Romero’s original concept, without the complexities added by later zombie stories. Horror and science fiction blog io9 posits that war and social upheaval correlate with spikes in zombie movie production. Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002), forever retooled the zombie concept for a world obsessed with contagious diseases (SARS, AIDS), and the essentially animalistic badness of human nature (torture, terrorism). Boyle’s zombies don’t want to eat; they are just plain mad.

Night of the Living Dead
“They won’t stay dead!”

Romero’s zombies have some rudimentary intelligence and are able to open doors, employ simple tools like bludgeons, and are afraid of fire. But they have no remnants of their former memories or personalities, and exist only to sup upon the living. Common to nearly every zombie tale is that an epidemic effects a breakdown of societal order, be it on a micro (such as the classic horror movie scenario of a few survivors locked in a farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead) or macro scale (witness the total collapse of civilization in Brooks’ novel World War Z). There’s a basic pessimism inherent in the genre; everything we regard as human is fragile. Faced with zombie hordes, the living turn on each other, cut and run, or totally shut down.

Romero & John A. Russo’s Night of the Living Dead screenplay includes some pseudo-scientific technobabble concerning a returning space probe contaminated with radiation from Venus, but for all intents and purposes the origin of the phenomenon is irrelevant to the story. Later zombie films would introduce the concept of a blood-transmitted virus, but it is irrelevant here whether or not any victim is contaminated by a germs or extraterrestrial radiation. Merely dying is all it takes to become a monster. In a way, Romero’s original conception of the zombie, absent of any plague metaphor, is the bleakest of all variants. Human society will be forever changed in a world in which even those that die naturally will have to be decapitated before they revive as beastly ghouls.

Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead
Ben (Duane Jones) greets the undead hordes

Like all of Romero’s zombie flicks, Night of the Living Dead is set in the Pittsburgh, PA area (except Day of the Dead, which is the odd one out for many reasons to be discussed in the forthcoming review). The opening sequence is set in graveyard littered with American flags, perhaps meant as a silent allusion to the vast numbers of fresh corpses being sent back from the Vietnam War. A random assortment of survivors barricade themselves in a farmhouse. Romero tells that the cast and crew actually lived in that farmhouse while filming: “We had no bread. We were literally sleeping out of that farmhouse, chopping ice out of the tank behind the toilet bowl in order to wash our faces, and we were taking baths out in the creek.”

In the best horror movie tradition, we have a cross-section of society with representatives of every gender, age, class, and race: a traumatized woman, a young couple, a classic nuclear family, and a lone black man. For all intents and purposes, their various social standings are erased as they all must unite to defend themselves against a common foe. Ben (Duane Jones) proves himself the most intelligent, sane, and capable of the bunch. But the humans can barely agree on anything, and expend most of their energy on infighting. One suspects that they wouldn’t be able to get along even without the zombie hordes assembling outside.

Night of the Living Dead is notorious for remaining unrated by the MPAA, proudly showcasing a considerable amount of gore (and even a little nude zombie derriere) unprecedented in 1968. But I think it’s fair to say that the true reason the movie is remembered as more than a cheapie horror flick is its African American protagonist. Of superior intelligence and maturity than everyone else, he alone (spoiler alert!) survives while the rest of the gang self-destructs.

But unbeknownst to him, authorities have mobilized to sweep the countryside in order to execute any and all shambling zombies. It’s impossible to ignore this group’s resemblance to a lynch mob of the white male establishment, bearing scythes and hunting rifles. Given this scenario, one might predict the powerful, racially charged ending. In an interesting stylistic choice, the final sequence is told as a photomontage, a series of still images showing us the tragic aftermath of what happens when the supposedly civilized “living” are given free reign to indulge in their bloodlust.

You’ve been reading an entry in our George A. Romero Zombie Cycle Film Festival. Join us in revisiting all five canonical episodes in the original epic zombie saga:

Watch the public domain movie for free:

Must read: Internal Bleeding Zombie Week ’08

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