There’s just something about zombies that inspires a sort of do-it-yourself attitude. Get a camera, some food coloring and corn syrup, and a dozen or so buddies to play zombies and you could make your own movie. Just check out YouTube and you’ll find loads of short zombies films, some of them quite good. That inspiration is powerful enough to inspire some first-time filmmakers to have a go at feature length zombie flicks, like The Zombie Diaries.
The Zombie Diaries, an independent British film shot documentary style, is divided into three semi-related segments that tracks the zombie outbreak from its inception. Each segment focuses on a different group of survivors at different stages of the zombie apocalypse. The first group is a news team doing a story on the government culling a farmer’s birds, only to stumble upon the walking dead. The second focuses on a married couple and a hitchhiker making their way through the increasingly dangerous countryside looking for supplies. Finally, the last segment shows us a group of survivors in a semi-permanent camp on the farm from the first segment as they struggle against the walking dead, paranoia, and boredom. The entire film is also bookended with an army platoon raiding the farm. As one imagines, all these segments intersect throughout the film.
Since it’s a faux-documentary, the characters carry around the camera the whole time. This works pretty well in the first segment, where the characters are reporters, but it doesn’t really make a hell of a lot of sense elsewhere. There are more than a few moments where the camera is completely inappropriate, such as in the third segment when the zombies attack in the middle of the night. Everyone else has a gun and is doing everything they can to defend camp, except for the camera guy who’s just filming everything for no discernible reason. The funny thing is that none of the characters ever talk about why they’re carrying the camera around (or how they’re keeping the battery charged for that matter). They mention it in passing, but there’s never any sort of justification for lugging the thing around.
The film itself is a pretty mixed bag. The story is a little bland. I get what they were trying to do with the intersecting storyline, but it seems like shock value was a higher priority than telling a compelling story. The acting tends toward amateur, with a couple exceptions. This tends to make the characters difficult to tell apart, especially since some of them appear in more than one segment of the film. Probably the worst sin in The Zombie Diaries is the horribly wooden dialog. Nothing the characters say sounds organic. Whenever they speak you’re constantly being reminded that this is a scripted film, which does the documentary style no favors.
The Zombie Diaries does get a few things right, however. First off: the zombies. They’re slow and shambling, don’t make crazy animal sounds, and don’t have superhuman strength. Best of all the makeup and most of the special effects are practical. There’s a bit of CGI used here and there, but when blood goes spurting out of a zombie’s head, that’s good old fashioned corn syrup and food coloring (plus chunks of other stuff for texture).
The film also tackles a lot of the more practical aspects of zombie survival pretty well. Instead of relying on a constant stream of bland action, the characters are seen doing things like scavenging for food, gathering water, organizing watches, etc. It can be a little dry, but I appreciate what the filmmakers were doing here.
A lot of movies are doing the faux-documentary, cinéma vérité thing lately, but they all end up looking really polished with good lighting, video, and sound. Not The Zombie Diaries. The film actually looks like it was shot on a camcorder with bad sound and whatever lighting was available at the time (mostly natural light). I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not, but it’s a bold decision and I would argue that it lends the film a bit of legitimacy.
So does the stuff The Zombie Diaries gets right outweigh the stuff it gets wrong? Kind of. It’s a very flawed film, especially the pacing, writing, and characterization. But on the other hand, it really does feel like someone just picked up a camera and started shooting their day-to-day life in a zombified world. Think of it as an ambitious failure, but one worth checking out.