Zombies attack again in Diary of the Dead

Zombies are persistent bastards, I’ll give them that.

It’s been 40 years since George A. Romero introduced the world to his special brand of flesh-eating zombies, and the landscape of American cinema hasn’t been the same since.

Romero’s latest installment in his Living Dead series was shown at the Sundance Film Festival this year and released into a limited run in February. Rather than making another chapter in the series, which most recently left off with Land of the Dead in which most of the human population had closed themselves off behind city walls, Romero went back to the beginning.

Diary of the Dead restarts the story by going back to the first night of the zombie take-over. Romero has been an independent filmmaker for most of his years, with an occasional dabble under the studio yoke. In an interview on the Diary of the Dead DVD, he admits that all of his zombie films have been independent jobs, with the exception of Land of the Dead.

Now that he’s in his late 60s rather than his late 20s, Romero wanted to go back to a small, independent production. It seemed only natural, with the uncontrolled nature of the internet and grass-roots media, to leave the Night of the Living Dead farmhouse and venture onto the road. Diary of the Dead follows a group of independent filmmakers who capture the events of the zombie nightmare and eventually cut it into a film, a la The Blair Witch Project.

The irony of Romero’s delving into new media is that he isn’t the first person to make a camera POV zombie movies. Since the advent of digital video and desktop editing, indie filmmakers around the globe have already been down this road.

What makes Diary of the Dead special isn’t necessarily the subject matter or the shooting style. Rather, it’s novelty comes from the veteran filmmaker testing a new format. That alone makes the film valuable for Romero fans.

Other aspects of the production that are interesting to watch are voice-over cameos from various horror icons (including Guillermo del Toro, Stephen King and Simon Pegg) and Romero’s in-dialogue jabs at recent fast-movie zombies.

Diary of the Dead has come to life on DVD with a solid assortment of special features, which include commentary by Romero, D.P. Adam Swica and editor Michael Doherty. There’s also a feature-length documentary that chronicles the production. Other features include a featurette on the film’s inspiration, set diaries, a spotlight on the guest voice-overs, character confessionals and (my personal favorite) the five zombie fan films from the movie’s MySpace contest.

With this year also marking the 40th anniversary of Night of the Living Dead, Genius Products has also released a remastered and restored version of the film with new bonus material. Of course, this film is not hard to find on DVD due to a copyright glitch that threw the movie into the public domain after its release. However, the reason to pick up this new DVD is for the extra bonus features that Romero and other members of the original cast and crew participate in.

The new Night of the Living Dead DVD comes with two feature commentaries with Romero and various surviving cast and crew members. Rare elements include a public Q&A with Romero about his zombie legacy and the last interview with Duane Jones, who played the character of Ben.

My favorite feature is the in-depth, feature-length documentary about the film, its history and its legacy. Cast members and production crew are brought back to talk about their memories, and they also address the dicey copyright issue with some detail.

The Romero zombies have returned to give some resistance to the fast-moving breeds of late, and the entire saga is book-ended with these two films’ release on DVD. Fans can see where it all started Night of the Living Dead, then see where it all starts again with Diary of the Dead.

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