It’s hard to make a zombie movie and have it stand out nowadays, which is probably why British writers/directors Michael Bartlett and Kevin Gates decided to make a zombie movie that is shot exclusively from the perspective of handheld video camcorders. The premise is a simple one: It is the early days of a zombie virus outbreak in the UK, and “The Zombie Diaries” follows three separate groups of survivors in the aftermath of the epidemic. Each story is separated into “diaries”, and opens with a group of documentarians heading to the countryside for an interview before realizing that the problem they’re trying to document has already spiraled out of control, and that zombies now roam the countryside.
The film then jumps to a second group of survivors — three to be exact, as they scavenge the same area of the countryside for sustenance a month after the outbreak. The third and final group consists of disparate individuals making a last stand at a farmhouse, where they encounter hostilities from the zombies outside and more human problems from within their own ranks. There are two minor prologues — one opens the film by following a squad of soldiers as they arrive at the same farmhouse used throughout the film, and an epilogue with the same soldiers to close out the movie.
In-between, “The Zombie Diaries” manages some hair-raising scares, easily accomplishing atmosphere and suspense with its camcorder gimmick. Although it takes much of its cue from the low-budget “Blair Witch Project”, “Diaries” doesn’t make the viewer seasick, and although only one of the cameramen is supposed to be a professional, the other two are serviceable. Sure, there is the expected herky-jerky action, but overall the film is well shot and effectively captures the spirit of the moment, as well as the horrors of the increasingly difficult situation.
Much of “Zombie Diaries” can be seen as a major detour from the way zombie movies are usually done, including a big cast. Unfortunately what sets the film apart from its walking dead brethren also makes it somewhat handicapped, as there are much too many characters to keep track off, much less feel any real empathy for. Of course, matters are not helped by the limited eye of the camera, which doesn’t allow us to share in the personal and intimate moments of the survivors. It also forces the filmmakers to stretch the credulity of how the camera ends up capturing much of the action. At one point, the cameraman has to invade the privacy of a couple sleeping in their bedroom in order to capture a particularly impact moment.
Although it probably seemed like a grand idea at the time, and actually much of it works to set “Diary” apart from the genre, the film’s camcorder POV gimmick ends up becoming borderline comical, especially towards the end. While the gag is easy enough to explain in the beginning, as we follow a group of documentarians, it gets increasingly absurd trying to justify the existence of such stalwart cameramen as the story shifts to other camps of survivors. Of course, having married themselves to the idea, the filmmakers are now forced to commit. This results in a number of contrived moments where a character will grab the camera to capture the action, when his first reaction should be to flee or grab a weapon. Sure, the documentarian from the beginning should feel duty-bound to capture the experience, but why are the other two so dedicated?
But perhaps I’m being too hard on “The Zombie Diaries”. It is, after all, a moderately budgeted zombie movie, something it achieves with wild success. The film brilliantly captures the fright of being faced with living, walking zombies, and the cinematic work by Barlett and Gates, especially during some of the prairie “zombie shooting” scenes is outstanding. And while the characters are too numerous and too plain to really get a handle on, a couple do stand out. Russell Jones, as a clearly untrustworthy survivor, makes the most impact, while I would have liked to see more of the documentarians, who are all but forgotten after the first 20 minutes, only to resurface much later in the film to tie up some loose ends.
The script, also by Barlett and Gates, works better than it really should, although I have to think that a simpler narrative structure that follows the documentarians from beginning to end would have been a better approach to take. This would keep the cameraman POV technique from becoming illogical, as well as keep the film from feeling overly episodic. Just when you think you’d like to see more of one group, we are already moving onto another bunch. I’m not even sure if I ever learned the names of everyone, including an odd tangent about one of the survivors being American, although how he ended up in the English countryside with a rifle is beyond me. Then again, maybe he wasn’t American, and I just made it up. To be honest with you, the characters fly by so quickly this could very well have been the case.
Despite all that, “The Zombie Diaries” is most definitely a successful entry into the zombie genre. It is certainly better than Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later”, if only because it does more (and better) with less. The film also gets bonus points for sticking to the shuffling zombies of Romero, the way it should be. What “Diaries” gets right, and what makes Romero’s zombies so terrifying, isn’t that they can outrun you or attack like rabid dogs, but because of their sheer number. And because they are so numerous, they could be anywhere, at any time, and a moment’s lack of focus — just a moment — could get you eaten. “Diaries” gets, and shows, that point perfectly.
Michael Bartlett, Kevin Gates (director) / Michael Bartlett, Kevin Gates (screenplay)
CAST: Russell Jones … Goke
Craig Stovin … Andy
Jonnie Hurn … John
James Fisher … Geoff
Anna Blades … Vanessa
Imogen Church … Sue
Jonathan Ball … Matt
Victoria Nalder … Leeann