Tick Reviews: The Zombie Diaries (2006)
It’s not always easy to be a horror movie fan. It’s downright painful at times to have horror be your genre of choice. We have to sift through a shitload of chaff to find the wheat that is often few and far between. Sure, you find a lot of enjoyable bad films. You set your standards low and you learn to say things like “That was awful, but it had some great kills!” or “You have to love a movie about a monster that is half kitten and half mosquito.” It’s just part of the job. So, when you run across a film that’s actually great, especially one that catches you completely off guard, it’s a truly wonderful moment that makes it all worth it. So, you take the chance, logic be damned.
There are so many strikes against this movie going in, that it’s a wonder I even saw it. The god awful, uncreative, on the nose title being one. The terrible DVD artwork that was obviously too epic for this film’s budget was another warning sign. The over enthusiastic pull quotes declaring it “The Greatest Zombie Movie Ever!” confirmed this was actually tripe. I knew this was going to be a waste of my time, but as a devoted, masochistic horror fan, I got the damn thing anyway.
To make matters worse, the film decides to combine two of the most overused subject of the past decade – zombies and the “found film.” The Cinéma-vérité style has been nearly run into the ground since Blair Witch, and most of the time it’s not been done very well. Thrown on top of the starting to get tired zombie sub-genre and it’s cliche, seen it a million times synopsis, the film had already dug itself a pit that it couldn’t hope to get out of. It was almost difficult to press the play button.
So…..have I heaped enough scorn of this thing yet? Get the idea that this is sub SyFy level cinema? Well, here’s the funny thing. Remember that surprising film that catches you off guard and makes the nights of crap all worthwhile? The Zombie Diaries is one of those films.
I know. I almost don’t believe me either. Yet, by the time the last frame of the film had gone to black and credits began to roll, I sat in stunned silence. The film wasn’t some enjoyably fun romp without a brain. It was genuinely good. It was a film that wasn’t trying to coast on flashy gore and jump scares in order to get a passing grade. This was made by film makers that wanted to make something truly memorable. More importantly, it had gotten under my skin. A true achievement for a jaded Horror vet.
The Zombie Diaries isn’t looking to reinvent the wheel. It’s not even trying to put on some fancy rims. It’s as bare bones on basic plot as you get and nothing you haven’t heard before. It opens in London as a strange global pandemic has finally reached the shores on England. It’s not long before the zombie apocalypse is in full gear and the story shifts to the non-infected as they try to survive.
What is different, is how the story plays out. It’s told in non-linear fashion as it follows three different groups of survivors roaming throughout the English countryside trying to avoid the zombie horde and stay alive. Each group is filming their struggles as they go, bringing a different perspective from both their personalities and their situations. While one group may be relatable and struggling, another may be unlikable and thriving. The different viewpoints do a lot to keep things interesting.
What’s also nice, and is a strength that more genre film makers should have picked up over the years, is that although this is a zombie film, zombies aren’t the main focus. This isn’t action packed or slathered in gore. It has those moments and when they’re on screen, they count. The film is character driven and full of quieter moments and tense preludes. It’s about the dread of knowing what is down the road or around the corner. It’s about putting yourself in the characters’ shoes.
What’s remarkable is how The Zombie Diaries does these things with such a bare bones structure. There isn’t much character detail. You won’t remember more than a couple of character’s names once the film has ended, yet you’ll remember each and every character themselves. There isn’t much exposition and no great plot point that anyone was trying to achieve, but the story is almost powerful in and of itself. Every bit of this works, but it is challenging. It’s not casual viewing. It’s not a party movie. The film demands you pay attention or, at the very least, the impact will be lost. At worst, you won’t be able to truly follow what’s going on.
It’s also nice to see a writer/director understand how to use the “found film” style of Cinéma-vérité. It’s become a gimmick like 3-D, or worse a substitute for storytelling, in the wrong hands and many a film has been torpedoed by it’s clumsy application. Here, it’s a rock star. It looks like actual amateur footage shot on actual amateur equipment, unlike the over glossed and too perfect “footage” in films like Cloverfield. The distortion and night vision are used when appropriate as are the edits. More importantly, it fits the story instead of feeling like an excuse for making a film. Film makers Michael Bartlett and Kevin Gates get this important tidbit and it shows.
Bartlett and Gates also understand that Cinéma-vérité/found film sub-genre was created for a reason. It’s original use is to mask a budget. Mask a budget. NOT take the place of film fundamentals. It’s there to help cover up a small effects budget. Yet, the zombie effects and (mainly) the gore effects are very well done. The acting feels very natural. There are no recognizable names in this and it’s a good bet that some of these actors aren’t even professional, yet no one drags the film down when they’re on-screen. They’re professional enough to feel like natural reactions, yet amateur enough to not come across as performing. The Cinéma-vérité style does enhance this in most cases.
All these things, by themselves, would add up to a decent viewing experience, but don’t add up to the sum of their parts. It’s the various strong moments in this film that set it apart. This isn’t a jokey film. It’s not full of winking nods to its forefathers. It operates on the seeming notion that no other zombie film has existed before. It’s bleak and outright cold at times. There are moments that are genuinely frightening and others that are absolutely disturbing in its documentary style matter of factness. Bartlett and Gates are obviously trying to touch a nerve with many scenes and they almost always connect on their swings. It’s not often that film makers feel subtle as they are obviously swinging for the fence.
Reviewing the film with anymore depth becomes sort of dicey. I’m always a firm believer that the less you know about most films the better and that goes for this film in spades. I also don’t want to oversell it and I fear that I already have. I’ve viewed the film only once with an almost premandated loathing. I have no idea how it would hold up under expectations or repeat viewings. I just know that it is, at the very least, worth your time if you even kinda, sorta consider yourself a horror fan. The Zombie Diaries is the proverbial diamond in the rough and I look forward to what the film makers do next.
8 out of 10