What Was George Romero Going for with Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead?

Movies Features George Romero
What Was George Romero Going for with Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead?

Let’s get this out of the way quickly: George Romero’s Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead are not very good films. The final two entries in the zombie auteur’s decades-spanning, intermittent franchise documenting the rise and aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, within distinct contexts and characters from film to film, have largely been disregarded as inferior entries in a once-great series. That’s hard to argue against—Diary and Survival are by and large shoddy, tedious films that lack the formal rigor, wry humor, incisive commentary and encroaching sense of horror that made previous entries so iconic. Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead are all marvelous transmissions of terror in their own ways, and even the 2005 entry that was made with the financial backing of a major studio, Land of the Dead, had its own merits worthy of reappraisal. Diary and Survival are difficult to defend.

But I’m not interested in mindlessly disparaging a legendary filmmaker for making a couple of duds. Romero’s name is etched in horror stone, a permanent fixture of the genre and vital to the way we understand the zombie subgenre. Who is anyone to chastise him for making a couple of stinkers? That said, it is interesting to ponder what exactly Romero’s goals for these movies were, as they contain stray markings of his discerning, distinct approach to the genre that are muddied by the actual films. What was Romero going for with Diary and Survival of the Dead?

You may recognize Diary of the Dead as Romero’s found-footage effort. Following the Universal-backed, large scope of Land, Romero wanted to go back to “make another little guerilla movie” to see if he still had it in him. He also wanted to do a movie about “emerging media,” and figured the subjective camera idea was something new and innovative he could try out. Aptly, filming for Diary took place in 2006, the year before found-footage staples Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield—films that helped catapult the subgenre into popularity—went into production, though the latter managed to beat Romero’s film to release. None of these films were close to the first to do found footage, but were concurrent with a sudden boom and familiarity within the cultural consciousness of the format. 

Romero going back and doing a DIY zombie movie for the 21st century isn’t an unappealing idea from the perspective of letting the director have his “going back to my roots” moment, even if Diary of the Dead does indeed let down his ambitions. The story is told as a documentary put together by Debra (Michelle Morgan), who is part of a group of university film students at the outset of the flesh-eating pandemic (ostensibly at the same time as the events of Night, though these newer films are generally understood as being part of a separate envisioning of the pandemic). They’re out in the woods at night as they struggle to coalesce their visions in making their own low-budget horror movie, in a bit of metatextual winking. It takes only a few minutes to begin hearing the reports of civil unrest and strange phenomena occurring across the country, and only a few more minutes for them to encounter the shambling undead.

The series of events from there is largely nonsensical and monotonous as the group travels from area to area looking for a safe haven, inevitably running into more of those pesky zombies. The idea of Romero returning to a small-scale approach for these movies sounds nice in theory, but in practice it just looks a little cheap. The shoestring budget of Night is masked beneath evocative and expressionistic black-and-white photography, while Dawn and Day ushered the series into color with a clear-eyed sense of social commentary and gnarly gore effects from horror makeup legend Tom Savini. By comparison, Diary feels watered down and without a strong sense of mood between the flat digital photography, digital blood and strained performances—though it does have the occasional eyes-popping-out-of-the-head and suicide-by-scythe, to be fair.

But there’s something to Romero’s whole “emerging media” angle. When viewed from that perspective, it’s not just a format he found himself experimenting with. The subjective vantage point and cut-rate aesthetics suddenly take on a new context about what it’s like for anyone to be able to film anything and show it at any time, an idea that rears its head occasionally throughout. True to form, Romero ends up uncannily prescient about the exploitation of violence and tragedy for content creation in the forthcoming YouTube age, while peppering in notions questioning and interrogating the idea of truth in media and what it means to be shown something on camera.

Diary overcomes the implicit question in found footage of “Why are they still filming?” by making it a downfall of Jason (Joshua Close), Debra’s boyfriend who mans the camera. Throughout, he insists to his reluctant friends that he has to keep filming so he can document an event that will go down as a significant piece of history. His reasoning seems benevolent but gradually reveals itself as a fatal obsession. By the end of the film, Jason has been repeatedly told to quit his unremitting filming, has neglected to help one of his peers from a zombie attack in order to capture the event, and has brought about his own demise when he refuses to join the remaining group in a bunker to indefinitely hole up. He’s bitten almost immediately and shot by Debra to avoid transformation, after which she takes the camera and seals everyone inside the panic room. The in-movie documentary ends with some of Jason’s footage of rural hunters having a little too much fun using their former fellow humans for target practice as Debra questions if humans are worth saving. 

That final beat is one that Romero conveyed with a little more tact in previous Dead entries—the final moments echo the much more devastating ending of Night—but it finds the director extending his thesis into a modern world. Debra’s musings are as much an indictment of a world that all-too-quickly devolves into senseless violence, as they are of the manic compulsion to capture it all at the expense of common decency. Even now, 16 years later in a world that has only further embraced such obsessions, it feels relevant. Whether or not you find it a worthwhile critique or just the anxieties of a guy from an older generation that saw an impending, overwhelming dependence on technology, it allows Diary to fit into a greater context within the trajectory of Romero’s filmography and preoccupations within his social commentary. The film is subpar, but its intentions are sound. 

Survival of the Dead is a weirder beast. Released in 2009 in a handful of theaters and otherwise straight to VOD, it’s a film that cost twice as much as Diary and looks twice as cheap. Without the pretense of found footage to help explain away the shabby aesthetics, Survival lacks a fundamental cinematic quality in its visual sense, a fact compounded by the bevy of other flaws carried over from the previous film.

It sees Romero attempting to string more connective tissue between films, perhaps implying a greater vision of where his franchise may have gone in the future. It follows a crew of National Guard soldiers, led by Sergeant Crockett (Alan van Sprang), who made a brief appearance in Diary when they held up and robbed that film’s protagonists. Here, through a series of clunky narrative turns, they find themselves in the middle of a small civil war between two Irish families known as the O’Flynns and the Muldoons on Plum Island off the coast of Delaware. Their conflict is zombie-related of course, as the former family seeks to eradicate any traces of undead left on the island while the latter wants to keep them alive until a cure is found, and maybe train them to feast on flesh other than human. 

Survival of the Dead is fully ridiculous, but it also fits snugly into the typical type of Romero ethical quandary which questions the state of our own humanity. Here, it’s communicated through a story that allows him to toy with iconography and moods outside of a horror mode. Through its widescreen frame with regular, bright shots of natural island vistas and its gunfights between two vengeful families, Survival of the Dead has an obvious Western feel. Indeed, he had said himself the film was inspired by William Wyler’s 1958 Western The Big Country, another film about the violence between two feuding families. More than that, Romero wanted to make a film about “war or entities that don’t die; conflicts, disagreements that people can’t resolve, whether it’s Ireland, or the Middle East, or the Senate.”

Romero has covered similar themes before and Diary never commits to a satisfying genre identity, but viewing it as a playful experiment helps the final product go down a little easier. Kenneth Walsh is hamming it up with a fake Irish accent as the head of the O’Flynns, there’s a ludicrous twin sibling reveal tucked into the plot, and it ends with a striking and silly final shot wherein the reanimated corpses of the two familial patriarchs pull their guns on each other once again in front of a Melancholia-sized moon. Much like Diary, it’s not the most graceful way Romero has ever conveyed his themes, but it is indicative of a director still in need of an outlet to express his feelings about a world that, in some ways, hasn’t changed all that much since 1968. But Survival deserved to be more fun, its bizarre story beats and coalescing of tones undone by being played a little too straight in a way that renders it dull and redundant. 

Survival of the Dead was the last film Romero ever directed before succumbing to lung cancer at age 77 in 2017, though it was never meant to be his final word on the zombie subgenre. Before his death, he was working on a treatment with co-writer Paolo Zelati for one last Dead film, one that would be more of a direct follow-up to Land of the Dead. It’s called Twilight of the Dead, and it was reported as recently as 2021 that there was progress being made to bring the idea to life with the help of Romero’s widow, Suzanne. The dangers of such a project simply feeling like a pale imitation of the works that preceded it are clear, but even a posthumous film based on Romero’s ideas sounds appealing if it means seeing the ultimate destination of the zombie outbreak he started 55 years ago. Diary and Survival of the Dead may not contribute much to the overarching trajectory of Romero’s apocalyptic analysis of society, but they stand as their own, contained little ventures from a filmmaker who had already made a few masterpieces. They’re ancillary to more significant works but, even as two footnotes, they add to our understanding of where Romero’s head was at when it came to zombies and America.

For now, Romero’s legacy feels similar to that of John Carpenter: An esteemed 20th century horror filmmaker who couldn’t seem to keep up with the turn of the millennium. Also like Carpenter though, Romero’s vast influence subsumes any late-career misfires. Diary and Survival of the Dead are failed, revealing experiments—but that’s all they are, and Romero’s name doesn’t go down as any less revered because of them.

Trace Sauveur is a writer based in Austin, TX, where he primarily contributes to The Austin Chronicle. He loves David Lynch, John Carpenter, the Fast & Furious movies, and all the same bands he listened to in high school. He is @tracesauveur on Twitter where you can allow his thoughts to contaminate your feed.

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