On DVD: George Romero's Diary of the Dead

Diary of the Dead is a film I feel profoundly bad for. When I first saw this film in September of last year, it was a brand-new and intriguing entry not only in the ailing zombie-in-the-apocalypse sub-genre of horror, but also into the first-person, found-footage category. A stunning critique of popular media and the current obsession with user-generated content, George Romero's satire on modern America mocks MySpace culture and the notion that everyone wants to see the story told through their own eyes. And while he gets a bit heavy-handed at points, he makes an interesting argument and does so in a fun, inventive way. Unfortunately for George Romero, his film wasn't released last September. It was released early this year.

Every once in a while a special film will come along, get picked up by a company and be strategically placed in their schedule to take advantage of the resources they have on hand and on the market. Sometimes, on rare occasions, that can kill a film. In Romero's case that is exactly what happened. Rather than rushing the film to the box office for a Halloween release, The Weinstein Company chose to hold onto it for a little while. And while horror critics waited to see it, the brilliant and much talked about Spanish version of the same concept, REC, exploded onto the scene. Those critics that had seen REC first almost universally felt that Diary was the inferior of the two and slagged it. Meanwhile, Americans were treated to a large, big-budget spectacle of a first-person, found-footage horror film called Cloverfield. And as much as I love Diary, Cloverfield stomps it into the dirt. And how could it not? It has an original premise, unique execution, and had an extra $23 million to play with in production. Romero was clearly on uneven ground.

The Weinstein Company's 'Diary of the Dead'So through the lens of two superior movies, Diary fell prey to comparisons. Having seen the film before I'd seen either REC or Cloverfield, I found it to be fun, original and a return to form for Romero. But now that I've seen the other two films, I fully understand the complaints. This really is a low-budget, talky horror movie that will feel to some like already well-tread ground. However, for Romero fans, this DVD is a must. Comparisons be damned, the film is still pretty good. It is a return to the first night -- the night that also begins both Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead -- when a group of filmmakers shooting a horror film out in the woods set out to make their way home as the world falls apart and the dead begin to rise.

The extras on the disc are pretty groovy in their own right. There's a slew of "making of" content, some of which is the usual, repetitive talking-head, "George is such a genius," stuff you've come to expect from most releases; yet, other extras offer some pretty neat behind-the-scenes footage. The real gems are the original bonus features, like the phone call recording sessions with three horror luminaries who lend their voices to the chaos of that first night. Then there's a series of zombie short films from a MySpace contest, one of which, & Teller, is a story about Teller (of Penn and Teller), playing himself, who holds out on his own against the zombies on a rooftop in Vegas.

While all super brief (a couple minutes each), all of the shorts are pretty entertaining and add to the fun of sifting through the disc. It all comes together to form a fun package that will no doubt find itself on the shelves of zombie horror fans the world over. Well worth checking out if you still have a stomach for zombie films (which, understandably, most of us are burnt out on) or anyone who loves a good Romero flick.