A fast-moving pre-credits sequence centres around a farmhouse in the English countryside. Soldiers race towards the house, guns at the ready, circling a barn and barking at each other as they move in with caution. With its handheld camerawork and mini-DV visuals, it looks very much like one of those TV adverts for the British Army.
Over the credits, we hear snippets from various news reports, informing us that a mysterious virus (or "pandemic") is sweeping across Europe. Footage of commuters in a busy London centre reveals businessmen in suits and protective breathing masks as they walk to work.
The film then shifts to "Diary 1: The Outbreak". Leeann (Victoria Nalder) interviews members of the public on a busy street, getting their opinions on the threat of a virus reaching London - and the Government's lack of action to prevent it happening.
Leeann is part of a quartet who are making their own documentary around the virus. Her colleagues in this venture are the pretty Vanessa (Anna Blades, TRACE), the low-key cameraman Matt (Jonathan Ball, ALONE TOGETHER) and Andy (Craig Stovin), the natural leader.
When Andy's boss Bill (Leonard Fenton, UNDERGROUND .... and Dr Legg from TV's Eastenders!) tells them that there's been reports of the virus spreading as far as New York, the team start to realise just how big a deal their project may become.
Following reports of serious infestation at a farmhouse outside London, they set off for said destination where they intend to interview the farmer - Mr West - for their documentary. When there's no answer at the farm, Andy leads the crew inside.
Creeping through the darkened house, the crew venture upstairs - and find West's disembowelled body. As Matt records the shocking image, West's eyes open. Suddenly zombies spring up from all sides, and the crew flee for their lives.
"Diary 2: The Scavengers (One month later)" follows. John (Jonnie Hurn, PENETRATION ANGST) films on his camcorder from the back of a car as he, Elizabeth (Alison Mollon) and Greg (Kyle Sparks) drive towards a town where they intend to loot the deserted shops for food. It's clear that the virus has spread widely, and that these are now desperate times. The tone of this footage is a lot darker, less relaxed than how Diary 1 began.
Again, however, we only get a "day-in-the-life-of"-style snapshot of these three characters, their fates left in the balance as we move on to another perspective of events:
"Diary 3: The Survivors" focuses principally on a small group of young adults who have fled to the countryside and set up a commune where they can defend themselves from the ever-increasing hordes of zombies.
It starts with footage of the group, led by the level-headed Geoff (James Fisher, HOOLIGANS), shooting zombies in a field for target practice, a'la NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. And staying in line with Romero's undead efforts, Diary 3 documents how people become their own worst enemies in times of crisis, failing to pull together as the world around them falls apart.
By focusing on three separate "video diaries" filmed by unrelated characters, THE ZOMBIE DIARIES unravels in a fragmented and episodic fashion. It could also be argued that by changing the onscreen faces every twenty-or-so minutes the viewer is deprived of any lead characters to become empathise with.
But the film works because each open-ended thread documents various stages of Britain's collapse in the aftermath of the zombie virus breakout: they each represent differing accounts of an escalating problem, showing in the background how society at large has crumbled in a short space of time. From the ghostly silent. littered streets to the growing number of walking dead on the horizon - it's a scary, bleak trek into darkness that these video journals take us on.
The early scenes with the documentary crew are the best. When they venture into the farmhouse, the lack of dialogue or music on the soundtrack creates a great deal of tension, with Matt's camera up-close in Andy's spooked face. Genuinely creepy, it recalls THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT's better moments, cranking up the suspense before climaxing with much screaming, shaking of the camera and aimless sprinting. It's very effective.
The use of shaky handheld camera footage and the cine-verite-style performances also recall PROJECT - there's even some panic-stricken nightcam footage at one point, which echoes the latter's climactic scenes. As mentioned earlier, several scenes also recall NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD ... and it's difficult not to think of 28 DAYS LATER during the opening sequences of soldiers and commuters in London.
But THE ZOMBIE DIARIES has enough energy and imagination to retain it's own identity.
The gore is surprisingly restrained (although when it does splatter across the screen, it's competently done). THE ZOMBIE DIARIES draws most of it's impact from a good range of believable, likeable characters and the tense, alien situations they are thrown into. In doing so, the movie approaches moments of convincing hysteria.
Performances are strong throughout - full credit to the largely unknown cast for delivering realistic, dry dialogue in plausible and convincing ways.
Stephen Hoper's haunting minimalist score and the cold outdoor cinematography add to the muted atmosphere tremendously too.
The script, by co-director/producer/editor team Michael Bartlett and Kevin Gates, is thought-provoking and largely free from cliche or unlikely heroism (and thankfully devoid of any trendy humour). It's great when a film comes along that treats its audience with respect, not wanting to insult us with unnecessary exposition or neatly-wrapped-up endings.
Speaking of endings, the film's only real bum note is the final fifteen minutes. These explain the fates of one Diary cast, but feel tagged on - as if were dreamt up at the last minute just to provide some kind of narrative thread. It's implausible, not in keeping with the tone of everything that's gone on before it, and makes little sense. Very disappointing.
THE ZOMBIE DIARIES is shot on digital and as such has that edgy urgency that's lacking in most celluloid productions. It's an original treat for the most part, enormously energetic and unafraid to let the viewer draw their own conclusions. I doubt Romero's similarly-themed DIARY OF THE DEAD will be as good...
Revolver's screener disc was very basic - just the film, in a good-looking non-anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer. Hopefully they'll treat it to a good DVD when it's release becomes official later in the year, as the word-of-mouth on this one is already growing faster than a zombie pandemic ...
Review by Stu Willis
|Released by Revolver Entertainment|
|Region 2 - PAL|
|see main review|