July 14, 2009

REVIEW: The Zombie Diaries (2006)


The Zombie Diaries (2006)

Kevin Gates
Michael Bartlett

RATING:3 / 5 zedheads

The Zombie Diaries was released in the UK back in 2006 but didn't get a Region 1 release until Dimension Extreme finally distributed it in North America in 2008. As happens with many independent horror projects on DVD (such as The Ghouls), the distributor packaged The Zombie Diaries with gratuitously misleading box art. You aren't going to see anything so epically bad-ass and post-apocalyptic as depicted on the DVD. But I knew this going in. Back when it was released, I obtained and saw a copy of The Zombie Diaries. Based on the urging of some friends and fellow reviewers, however, I decided to revisit The Zombie Diaries for a second look.
In short, I wasn't impressed by it then nor am I impressed by it now. Save for some very impressive low-budget zombie makeup and one or two genuine scares that I appreciated more on a second viewing, The Zombie Diaries makes ineffective use of its POV style and does not tell a story in a format that's conducive to creating interesting or compelling characters.

The Zombie Diaries is essentially three (maybe four) short films that are loosely connected. All segments are told through a camera person's recorded footage of what has happened during the course of the movie. And it's zombies that happened! The UK has been hit with a fast-moving plague that presumably reanimates the dead as hungry undead corpses. The first segment follows a news production crew heading out to the countryside when the outbreak occurs. The second segment is about three survivors scavenging for supplies, and the third segment is about a larger community of organized survivors who have let in a questionable new member. There is also a segment that bookends the film, but it's not really a story.

Now, I am not one of those folks who irrationally hates on POV films on principle. You know the types. The basement dwellers who scream "GOD DAMN SHAKY CAM!" from their computer chairs as spittle sputters from their lips and they pound the keyboard to share their oh-so-important views as talk backers on sites like Aint It Cool News. When done right, POV films can be an engaging way to draw an audience into the story in a fashion that is accommodating to a low budget. The Blair Witch Project helped pioneer this type of film making, and for good reason: it was a highly thrilling and engaging piece of work. Although I may burn a few bridges with my next statemetn, I want to say that I also thought that Cloverfield was an excellent use of the POV format and a very satisfying monster disaster film. I'm easily suckered into a POV films but only if the filmmakers commit to the format. The Zombie Diaries, like other films before it, does not commit. It uses it was a gimmick.

In order for me to engage with a story and buy in to the conceit that what I'm seeing has been captured on film by one of the movie's characters, the film has to feel genuine within the realms of plausibility. Yes, it's always going to be weird that someone is filming amazing and horrific events and doesn't just drop the camera and run. However, there are ways of making it feel plausible. I have a hard time suspending my disbelief, on the other hand, when in The Zombie Diaries three separate people in three different events are all filming the zombie mayhem. It makes sense for the first segment because they are journalists. There is little explanation for why the other characters behind the camera are filming every action and conversation. Yes, we live in a surveillance society, but no private citizen walks around filming every single private and public moment in their lives to create a narrative, especially not in a massive crisis. I can't beleive that.

Also, there are scenes later in the film where the camera person takes the audience to see things that a camera would normaly cut to in a traditional fiction film but in this case the camera person has no plausible reason for going to or filming. And perhaps the greatest crime I cannot forgive is that The Zombie Diaries has a score and music in places, which breaks the cardinal rule of raw footage Cinéma vérité. I really don't see any reason this film needed to be told as a POV film when the filmmakers were so set on using all of the conventions of traditional film.

Another reason I was unimpressed with The Zombie Diaries is that it's POV format is not used to forge a deeper connection between the audience and characters but rather to break those connections. The Blair Witch succeeds as a thriller because the audience is put in the simulated POV of those being tormented -- you feel you are there -- so you establish greater emotional connection and empathy with the characters. The Zombie Diaries does this in the first segment, where the acting is most solid and the only genuinely scary parts of the films are most unexpected. I really got to like the characters, or if not like them (because some of them are jerks) then at least feel comfortable with them. However, there segment ends in the middle of a particularly tense scene with little resolution, and the movie picks up with a new batch of survivors. The acting in the second segment is very rough and wooden, and the audience is never treated to the same level of "get to know you" scenes. The third segment makes it worse by doubling the number of nw survivors -- none of whom ever feel like we should identify with them. I spent the whole rest of movie hoping we'd get more story from the first segment, but instead the movie cuts between the second and third segments.

A zombie film is only as good as its human characters, and I didn't care for the majority of them in this movie. I think the choice to tell three inter-cut mini-movies rather than one POV film hurt The Zombie Diaries by cutting me off from any sustained emotional connection to the characters.

The reason, however, I would give this film a very reluctant recommendation of 3/5 zedheads is that the zombie special makeup effects are outstanding. For a low budget film, The Zombie Diaries pulled a fucking rabbit out of the hat on this one. In an interview with Ispitonyourgrave.com, co-director Kevin Gates says that, "We wanted the zombies in our movie to be as realistic as possible. Because we were filming in an unforgiving documentary style, the zombies had to look good. Our special effects team did a lot of research looking at grisly photos of real corpses and we also looked at lots of other zombie films where the make up really stood out." And they do look good. Bodies look like realistic victims of death, decay, and cannibalism. Unlike Romero's zombies in later films like Day and Land of the Dead that look great but are very unrealistically monstrous with their bumpy faces and gnarled teeth, the zombies in Zombie Diaries look like the dead on their feet.

For the special zombie effects alone, I am willing to give this movie a marginal recommendation. On a different day, with maybe a few more drinks in me, I could just as easily as bust this movie down to a 2/5. But for now, the film has enough to its credit to be somewhat worth seeing. I will not, however, change my opinion that the film should never have been made as a POV movie to begin with, and I cannot forgive the way it makes its characters structurally unlikable.