The Zombie Diaries Review
It is the present day. An unknown virus has begun spreading through the human population, respecting neither gender nor race. There is some belief that Britain will be relatively safe. Its people believe that its status as an island will allow it to halt the spread of the disease somewhat and that the government will do something. But they cannot and as the film opens, a British army platoon is clearing a group of farmhouses. Approaching a dead body, which appears to have been shot post-mortem, they take a tissue sample and leave. Back in London, life continues as normal but there are rumours of the virus having hit sections of the city. Hospitals are closing, the army are out on the streets and all routes out of the capital are becoming congested as people try and leave for what they believe is the safety of the countryside. Amongst those leaving the capital are a group of documentary filmmakers. They arrive at a farmhouse a little outside of a small village to interview someone who has some knowledge of the origins of the virus. When they arrive, though, the farmhouse is deserted, as is the village. When they try to leave, their engine fails and they return to the farm and, not getting an answer, break down the door. Then they hear a bump upstairs.
One month later and two months after the outbreak of the virus, there are a group of three uninfected people driving through the country and surviving on what they can scavenge from now-abandoned supermarkets. They are armed with one rifle but prefer to run at the first sight of a zombie. Their hope is not only that they make it through each day but that they make contact with anyone else who has survived the plague. Their makeshift radio picks up a voice but before they can reply, they hear a scuffle in the street outside. Finally, a larger group of survivors are living on a farm. Their daily routine consists of scouting the area, shooting what zombies shamble into their vicinity and fighting amongst themselves. Eventually, though, their distrust turns to violence and they question their fortune at being amongst those who have survived.
"Fuck! I'm sick of this shit!" How rare it is for a character in a horror movie to say what the typical member of the audience would say were they in a similar situation, that of being hungry, of being in the company of people that they neither like nor trust and who is forced to spend their days shooting zombies. Worse is that they have no idea what is happening beyond that the dead have risen. Unlike those survivors in Night Of The Living Dead, this last band of humans have no television or radio from which to glean news. Instead, they simply shoot anything that moves, even to being so twitchy that they pick off other survivors looking for shelter, and make do with wiping their feet in bleach to pass for decontamination. When they find their truck splashed with the blood of zombies, they claim that it is now unusable while tying a friend of theirs to a bed when he arrives with blood on his jeep and evading some of their more searching questions.
As such, we're very far away from the well-informed army types safe in a bunker who pass their days experimenting on the zombies. There are no bikers having fun with the undead in shopping malls. And certainly no black magic on a remote Caribbean island to explain what's happening. These are, in the words of the tabloid press, very ordinary people who find themselves in an extraordinary situation. As such, they're hapless in the kind of way that we all would be come the end of the world. Portraying the whole of society on a very small scale, some of the survivors, particularly the scavengers of the middle story, make do with what they can salvage. Others are altruistic in their efforts and seek to build a Survivors-style community. And there are those who see this as the time to have some fun, be it murder or the sexual assault of other survivors, even to tying them up to attract zombies. The final scene of one shell-shocked survivor suggests that the fate of those who survived the virus may not have been as lucky as it first seemed.
However, what The Zombie Diaries does very well is to make the most of its very meagre resources to produce some very effective moments. The first sight of the zombie isn't particularly frightening but is eerie. The cast's reaction is much better. Writers and directors Michael Bartlett and Kevin Gates didn't tell their cast what door the zombie was behind so their surprise looks genuine. Their reaction may be exaggerated for effect but they wring a good deal of scares out of the run across the farmyard, making three zombies (according to Bartlett and Gates) look more like a dozen or more simply by their way the cameras flit between faces and the pitch black of the countryside. There are some cheap scares, mind you, such as the zombie body that's there one minute and missing the next and these shocks are never quite so convincing during daylight hours, although they rarely are, but on the film's very limited budget, Bartlett and Gates have done a sterling job, particularly with their use of the sound of buzzing flies before the cast come upon a zombie. It's a cheap effect but hear it once and you it will spook you thereafter, knowing that a ghoul will come shambling into the action not long thereafter. And still they pull something of the action that might test the nerves of audiences well used to zombie horror, such as their murder of a young girl by a shot through the head.
Eventually, these three stories overlap and the intentions of several characters, who we may have been suspicious of, are revealed. Bartlett and Gates don't explain everything. In fact, they avoid giving away very much, due, in part, to wanting to keep some level of suspense to their film but also to their characters not having very many answers to what it is that they find. When they notice a sudden increase in the number of zombies, they find that it's due to one being tied up in a remote part of the outbuildings in the farm and simply fail to find any reason for this. Some of what happens thereafter and how the stories begin to fall into one another gives the film more rewatch value than it might otherwise have. Certainly, this is aided by the shooting of the film on video, such that names and faces aren't always recognisable on a single viewing. More than that, though, it's a film that's made by it's atmosphere. That bump from upstairs (and the search for what made it) is one highlight but there are others, including Jonnie turning the camera on himself as he runs through the field in search of survivors, Craig and the others escaping the farmhouse in the dark, the arrival of Goke in the forest and Geoff finding Vanessa. Memorable moments each of them and very much at home on this DVD release.
Obviously, given the type of film that it is, The Zombie Diaries was recorded onto video, albeit on cameras a cut above the average Handycam (Sony PD-150s are mentioned but they do talk about using cheaper alternatives at times) and so while it may not be as sharp a picture as the typical movie, the DVD presentation is fairly reasonable. What does let it down is that the 1.85:1 frame is presented non-anamorphically. That probably disguises some of the problems with the picture, such that the loss of clarity that would have come from video is covered by the picture not taking up the whole screen, but, as a viewer, the film took my attention not long after it began, leaving me forgetting that it wasn't filling the screen. However, that's the advantage of watching it on a larger television. On a smaller screen, it might look stupidly small.
The DD2.0 audio track is very effective, though. What makes it is the lack of fuss that comes with the dialogue, with there being a noticeable amount of distortion that comes with gunshots and screaming. That could have been annoying but actually works really well here, the sudden burst of noise coming as much of a surprise as the sight of zombies being picked out of the darkness by camcorder night vision. The music is also very good, being sparse and used infrequently but getting the tone just right. Finally, though, there are no subtitles.
Commentaries: Writers/directors/producers/and everything else Michael Bartlett and Kevin Gates are together for the first of these two tracks and, in their own words, avoid congratulating themselves too much. While one could understand it if they had given how much they achieved on such a limited budget, they are much more interested in the nitty-gritty of the production, including how they engineered certain scenes (asking members of the public about bird flu rather than a zombie plague), their filming methods and, probably their best touch, how the making of their film was much aided by friends and family. Whether it's using flats belonging to the parents of members of the cast, friends travelling the length and breadth of the country for a few seconds on-screen as a zombie or real members of the Territorial Army, there's always something of interest in it.
The second commentary opens with The Outbreak section of the film and features cast members Russell Jones (Goke), Anna Blades (Vanessa), Craig Stovin (Andy), Jonathan Ball (Matt) and Hiram Bleetman (Manny). They start slowly, perhaps showing some nerves, but soon warm up, picking out their favourite moments, explaining the behind-the-scenes tricks that came from making the film on such a low budget and those lines and situations that they think don't quite make the cut, such as Anna Blades complaining about appearing so small when seen next to Victoria Nalder. And she does look tiny. In the middle section, The Scavengers, Jonnie Hurn (John) is on his own, explaining away the absence of Kyle Sparks and Alison Mollon while making the most of his time alone on this track, explaining early-morning filming in Letchworth and how the shoot was interrupted by people wanting to walk their dogs through the woods and didn't quite see how their presence might affect a movie set in the apocalypse.
The final section of the film, The Survivors, features Will Tosh (James), James Fisher (Geoff), Imogen Church (Sue) and Sophia Ellis (Anna) as well as the returning Russell Jones, whose presence in the film spans two of its three parts. As with the first section, this begins quietly but it takes no more than a few minutes for the cast to get into the recording, explaining, with fondness, how the night-time shoots led to their firing at zombies, driving fast through fields and watching meteor showers. The way the film cuts back and forwards means that every session has at least a couple of goes on the commentary but aside from the occasional complaint over how resources were stretched so thinly, everyone involved sounds as though they enjoyed the experience.
Until The Last Light Goes Out (56m09s): Michael Bartlett and Kevin Gates have been filmed separately for this feature - it would have been better had they been together - but that doesn't prevent this being an effective little documentary on the making of The Zombie Diaries. There is plenty of behind-the-scenes footage, contributions from quite a few members of the cast and no shirking when it comes to those parts of the film that the cast had complaints with, such as the zombie who would rather Gates didn't put maggots on his face or in his ears and the sweet-talking that was required when the customers of a gun-shop in Letchworth turned up to park en masse on the same day that The Zombie Diaries were filming there. Like the commentaries, this is also split into sections, with the cast of one part filmed separately from the others but that's fine given how, for the most part, the film is presented as three distinct stories that only begin to overlap near its end.
Deleted Scenes (15m29s): These are a bit of a mixed bag. Some would have done very well had they been included in the final cut, such as the documentary filmmakers coming upon two abandoned cars in the middle of the road while others probably sounded much better when included as part of the script than in the final edit.
Finally, there is a Trailer (2m29s) for The Zombie Diaries.