Diary of the Dead, the fifth installment in George A. Romero's long-running zombie saga, is at odds with itself from the start. On the one hand, American cinema could always use more Romero movies. The 68-year-old writer/director has only made 14 of them in 40 years, and at least two of his films—the original Night of the Living Dead, from 1968, and its first sequel, 1978's Dawn of the Dead—are flat-out masterpieces, not just of the zombie-movie form but of American myth-making. (Land of the Dead, from 2005, was flawed and overstuffed, but it was a far better film than Crash, the movie that won Best Picture at the Oscars that year.)
On the other hand, what the movies don't need is another fake documentary, especially not the horror-movie kind where college students with handheld video cameras, giving voice to blowhard middle-aged screenwriters who are watching the world pass them by, wax pretentious about blogs, YouTube, and camera phones. And that, unfortunately, is exactly what Diary of the Dead turns out to be—a stilted, low-budget version of Cloverfield with zombies instead of Godzilla, or maybe just the long-overdue and stillborn offspring of The Blair Witch Project.
There are glimpses of the particular Romero touches that have made the Dead series such an enduring blend of genuine fright, gross-out gore, and satire. Romero's still looking for novel ways to present—and kill—his zombies, and he's never been more novel than the way he dispatches a deaf and mute Amish farmer. One zombie has its eyes blown out by defibrillator paddles, and another staggers into a children's birthday party dressed as a clown. A handful of zombies walk in circles around the bottom of a swimming pool, trapped like goldfish. Romero also has an eye for, believe it or not, the visual poetry of the undead. His shot of fresh-faced cowgirl Tracy (Amy Lalonde) holding vigil over her dead boyfriend, framed through a windshield dotted with dew, is patient and elegant. But the scene's punctuation—the boyfriend rising up as a zombie, followed by the report of a handgun and an abrupt flop—is pure Romero, though it echoes Ingmar Bergman, Stephen Crane, and Sam Peckinpah.
Where Diary first goes wrong is in its ponderous attempt to squeeze some sort of commentary on mass media into what should have been simply a mash-up of the road movie and a zombie flick. The film starts (after a video-blogged voiceover) on the set of a college film project, and the student director, aspiring documentarian Jason (Joshua Close), never puts the camera down after the zombie apocalypse starts and he and his girlfriend, Deb (Michelle Morgan), and the rest of the crew set out on their quest for refuge. The zombie plague and the Internet, you see, aren't so different.
Romero's always inserted some social satire into the Dead movies: Night has been regarded as a metaphor for the civil upheaval of '68; Dawn, which took place in a shopping mall, poked fun at consumerism and suburbanization; Land pointed a finger even more directly at post-9/11 paranoia. But all of that's come a distant second to zombies swarming together in an unstoppable mass of rotting flesh and hunger for human blood. In Diary, Romero sounds like a grouchy old man yelling at the kids to stay off his virtual lawn. It's a little late in the game to be raising warning flags about the Internet, for one thing, and Romero's objections seem both off the mark and overkill. "If it's not on camera, it didn't happen, right?" Deb sarcastically repeats to Jason. It makes a good catchphrase, but it's entirely empty as a reflection of contemporary attitudes. It's the first time the concept seems more important than the execution, and that's an unwieldy chronology for a director of zombie movies.
What's worse is that talk like that gets in the way of the zombies. Diary's fatal flaw, even more than its heavy-handed sermonizing, is its pacing. When the zombies do threaten the party of survivors, they're alone or in pairs; there are only a couple of brief instances where zombies operate as an inexorable tide, and each time the group gets away before the tension reaches its peak.
Still, even as the weakest entry in Romero's zombie series, Diary of the Dead is a Romero zombie movie. Nobody does the living dead like he does, and the few times he gets it right here are just about worth getting through the rest of it. It's a fair trade.