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At the end of 2005's Land of the Dead, George A. Romero's zombies were showing signs of an evolving intelligence, while humanity, cowering inside a walled city, was devolving into self-destruction. But humanity's fate remains unknown, as Diary of the Dead is a complete reboot, taking place in the modern day but parallel to the events of the original 1968 Night of the Living Dead.
"After I finished Land of the Dead," says Romero in a phone interview, "I suddenly saw this big thing and said, 'Where do we go next?' It seemed to be heading towards Beyond the Planet of the Apes or Beyond Thunderdome. It seemed to have no relation to its origins, which was this little guerilla film that a bunch of us amateurs made so long ago."
The director's desire to scale back the scale of the series coincided with an interest in exploring emerging media, only the latest social issue given voice via ravenous, mindless corpses. In Diary, the modern proliferation of media voices serves to obscure and fragment truth.
"There's a power in this box," he says. "Whether it's a TV set, a radio, a computer, a cell phone, whatever medium you're getting your information from, that power tends to deceive. I think people are obligated to make decisions about issues, but they'd rather just look up from their beer and believe whoever they happen to hear right at that moment."
The success of the Dead films has given Romero license to explore such political and social themes throughout his career ó as long as a bit of blood and decay gets sprinkled on top. "I'm very happy that I have this position," he says. "All five of the films have come out of observations that I made about the world and then said, 'OK, I can glue zombies on this and maybe get a deal.' I have a lot of fun making these genre films, but I'm able to do things that have a little more relevance or are at least snapshots of the decades in which they were made."
Diary also finds Romero revitalized by the freedom offered by shoestring filmmaking. He found an invigorating challenge in the complex choreography required to make the first-person technique seem spontaneous and natural, reflected by the fact that the film seems to be the work of a filmmaker far younger than Romero's 68 years.
"What keeps me going is the idea that I'm still learning how to control this medium," he says. "John Ford made 200-plus flicks; I'm working on No. 17. I don't think I know all the tricks yet."
Diary of the Dead is now playing at Ritz at the Bourse. See review in Movie Shorts on p. 44.