There is no doubt in my mind that the most interesting development in cinema right now is the curious explosion of first-person camcorder movies (somebody needs to come up a name for the style soon, but not me). It seems highly unlikely that any of the three films so far made with this aesthetic - Brian De Palma's Redacted, the J.J. Abrams-produced Cloverfield and now, horror grand master George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead - could possibly have been made in reference to each other, but that's part of what makes it so fascinating: that three very different filmmakers would almost simultaneously hit upon the same technique for three very different reasons.

As everyone who had the ability to write mentioned a month ago when Cloverfield was new, this style seems unavoidably linked to the rise of YouTube, that generation-defining paradise for video diarists, politicos, pop culture collectors, musicians, and so on to infinity. The idea seems to be that within a very short time, a very large portion of society has become helplessly addicted streaming video and the idea that things only exist if they can be captured, digitized and uploaded for the whole world to see.

That's certainly an intriguing idea, although it feels like the people making probably aren't the same people spending all their time on YouTube. It's also not an idea that has been all that well served by the films that it purports to explain: Cloverfield ignores the theme almost completely, while Diary of the Dead humps it to the point of exhaustion. Only the criminally underrated Redacted gets things just right, and even that film hedges its bets by couching the home movies in among several sources of artificial found footage.

Because they've been released so close together, and both are horror films, it's the easiest thing in the world to lump Cloverfield and Diary together in this discussion. But the most characteristic element of Romero's film is actually the one that most clearly sets it apart from Cloverfield, and makes it more like Redacted: where the monster movie was explicitly presented as found footage, the exact unedited videotape found in a camera in the former Central Park, we are told literally within seconds of the beginning of Diary that we are watching a finished film, assembled by one of the survivors in some vain attempt to make sense of all the chaos going on around her. That film isn't actually Diary of the Dead (words that first appear in the closing credits), but The Death of Death, directed by University of Pittsburgh film senior Jason Creed (Josh Close) and edited together by his girlfriend Debra (Michelle Morgan), mostly using footage shot by Jason but occasionally incorporating some of the video clips he downloaded showing the terrible international epidemic of - all together now - the dead rising from the grave to eat human flesh.

Just about the most vexing question about the film - it is not a "problem" as such - is the question of authorship, by which I mean the question of who to blame for everything that goes wrong. The Death of Death/Diary of the Dead is marked at all points by some very bad aesthetic misfires, most of them having to do with Debra's extremely intrusive point-of-view, especially the voiceover where she explains in insultingly simply detail what this project is and why she has put it together and what her goals are: to instruct us and to scare us. It is also in this voice-over that we get much of the meat of the film, although "the brussels sprouts of the film" is a better metaphor: the apparently wise but thoroughly unpalatable message that is very good for us. In this case, Romero's contention by way of Debra by way of Josh that decades of television news, the easy availability of prosumer cameras, and the explosion of streaming online video, have all contributed to a society where we'd rather record what is happening or watch those recordings than actually experience life. A fine if cranky theme as I suggested earlier, but expressed here with all the artlessness of a machete to the forehead.

So my question: are the ridiculous narration and cheesy video transitions and all that the result of a great director, Romero, making some very ill-advised choices, or the result of a great director creating a character whose ideas about filmmaking aren't particularly well-formed. The Death of Death is certainly a bad documentary, but I don't think that Diary of the Dead is at all a bad movie. Still the parts of the film that Debra didn't create, Romero must have, and that includes some very dispiriting moments such as when Josh's drunken British film professor (Scott Wentworth) compares holding a video camera to holding a loaded gun. Moments like that - there are several - are the basis for the argument that Diary is a flawed film or even a failure; without doubt it is the least of Romero's five zombie movies (I say this in full knowledge that whereas Night, Dawn, Day and Land formed a unified chronology, Diary effectively reboots the series and should be regarded at best as an alternate history, if not a totally unconnected film).

Still, a Romero zombie movie is a Romero zombie movie, and "the least" still leaves a great deal of room to get worse; well do I recall three years ago when I first saw Land of the Dead and was convinced that it was an epic disappointment. I still like it less than the classic trilogy, but it has grown on me by leaps and bounds since then. So I will refrain from making any sweeping judgments against Diary. Even if it's the least brainy of the five films, it might well be the scariest, for while Romero is famously a smart genre filmmaker, we must never forget that he is also a good genre filmmaker, with a nearly inerrant sense of what that genre requires. The man who invented gutmunching zombies knows that some of us love gore; thus there are a couple of fantastic showpieces including an instant classic involving hydrochloric acid slooooowly dissolving an undead skull. He also knows that some of us prefer our films not to pornographically showcase blood 'n' guts, and so there are very few of those gore setpieces, with most of the moments in the film using shadows and inference to suggest more than they show.

The use of first-person turns out to work very well in a genius's hands just as far as genre tropes go; as most horror hinges on what the audience doesn't know, this technique effectively guarantees that we don't know more than the usually ignorant heroes. It's the least Romero can do for us; having saddled himself with an arbitrary contrivance (the reason that the characters won't put down the camera is defended better than in Cloverfield, but it still doesn't make a whole lot of sense), he at least gets some mileage out of it.

At the end of the day, is it a great film? Nah. But it's good. I have very little doubt I will like it more 12 months from now than I do at this moment, just like everyone did with Day and Land. There's no question that Romero indulges himself more than usual, sometimes to good ends - the opening of the film, on the set of Josh's mummy movie, allows for a couple of genuinely great inside jokes - but mostly to ill or inconclusive ends. And this is a director whose tendency to reign himself in has never exactly been a strong suit. But in a world of aggressively anonymous horror, such a personality-rich little ditty as Diary of the Dead is surely nothing to sniff at, especially given that its best moments are great and its worst moments aren't "bad" so much as they are "frustrating." Even at his worst, Romero is one of the best.

7/10