After having seen Diary of the Dead in 2007, I came to the conclusion that the zombie sub genre had died. All that film told me was that it was time to close the door on the zombie movie and move on to other horror subjects as even George A. Romero couldn't find a truly fresh angle on it. Thank goodness for Colin (Marc Price, 2008). That film helped restore my faith in the sub genre and got me interested in zombies again. (Yet I still remain unimpressed with Zombieland).
When I came across The Zombie Diaries, I didn't immediately want to watch it because after Colin, what more can be said, differently, about zombies? In addition, it had an extension of the word 'diary' contained within the title, and every time I thought about it, I had flashbacks of Romero's ponderous musings about video camera culture and trying very hard to be realistic. When I eventually got round to watching it, I had very low expectations. However, despite being made on a low budget, I was pleasantly surprised. The premise of the film is basically several groups of people filming themselves as they try to survive different phases of a zombie outbreak in London. We have Diary 1 (The Outbreak), Diary 2 (The Scavengers) and Diary 3 (The Survivors) Diary 3 is intermingled with diary 2 and dairy 1 towards the end of the film.
Whereas Colin was interesting because it was telling the story from the zombie's perspective, this one concentrates more on the situation that the characters from each of the three diaries find themselves in. It focuses more on the people and most importantly their reactions which makes the film all the more unnerving, bleak and scarily realistic. At certain points it manages to put you in their place and therefore makes you feel that you are experiencing the same terror and uncertainty which they are. This makes you think hard about yourself - what would you do if you found yourself in their situation, and had to do what was necessary? (Which Diary of the Dead never achieved). This of course makes it feel - most of the time - all the more realistic whilst looking and feeling pleasantly rough around the edges.
Clearly, I have been emphasising that the film works most of the time. Considering that it is shot in a cinema verite style, in order for it to work throughout its 81 minute duration, every performance needed to be spot on; pitch perfect and convincing. Unfortunately, not all of the cast pull it off. The strong performances by Anna Blades and Victoria Nalder are terrific In dairy 3 the acting doesn't gel. James Fisher and Russell Jones have to virtually hold this part together in order to make it work. They manage to come across as being the most realistic and human characters (and therefore the most engaging). Several other performances throughout the film are very naive. One wonders if a different set of actors had been cast, perhaps the acting would have been on the correct wavelength, which would have made the film even more unnerving and claustrophobic.
The principle which makes the texture of the film refreshing is the lack of over the top, Blair Witch Project and The Last Horror Movie style monologues to the camera. (Thank fully this only happens once). There were plenty of opportunities for the cast to indulge and have done more of these, as well as throwing in a ton of running shaky-cam vomit inducing sequences which would have artificially heightened the tension. It uses these techniques sparingly and only when necessary, which maximises the natural atmosphere.
The make up and special effects by Scott Orr, Mike Peel and Cesar Alanso are stunning. The zombies do not look like the typical Americanised Greg Nicotero clones. Although for some reason I wasn't always convinced by them. Perhaps they looked too beautiful or maybe they didn't always stagger properly. Obviously there is the 'social commentary' sub text (which seems to get associated with all zombie movies), but it's not thrown in your face every 5 minutes. It remains, as it should, a subtle subtext that resides in the background.
Overall (minus the parts which didn't work), what The Zombie Diaries demonstrates is that the key to making a zombie movie interesting and watchable lies in how the story is told. Although both the films premise and the horror diary format are nothing new, together both principles work (most of the time) very well. Even when made on a low budget. It's a shame that when people make reference to a diary format based zombie film (not that there are many around), they turn to Diary of the Dead....
Directed by Michael Bartlett and Kevin Gates
Cast Includes: Russell Jones, Craig Stovin, Jonnie Hurn, James Fisher, Anna Blades, Sophia Ellis and Will Tosh