Sunday, 13 September 2009

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The Zombie Diaries (Kevin Gates & Michael Bartlett, 2006)

“I just want to document everything” – Matt, cameraman, Diary One: The Outbreak.

Broken into three discreet sections, The Zombie Diaries is a collection of video diaries made by survivors of a viral pandemic. As indicated by the title cards within the film - Dairy One: The Outbreak, Diary Two: The Scavengers and Diary Three: The Survivors – the narrative chronicles the increasingly desperate situation the characters find themselves in: the first diary records the initial confusion over what is actually happening, events which are soon followed by the appearance of the first zombies. Lurching out of the darkness, they stumble towards the camera, groaning and drooling blood and spittle. The second diary, recorded one month after the first, depicts the efforts made by three people to survive what is now clearly an apocalyptic situation as food and fresh water supplies are running low and tempers fray as the amount of zombie steadily increases. The final diary depicts events well into the crisis and where the attempts to survive start to take quite a dramatic turn when the various small groups of survivors make contact with each other via short-wave radio.

The format of the video diary immediately provides a narrative structure and logical timeframe for the film and ensures a high level of intimacy between the characters and the viewer, a quality emphasised by characters repeatedly and aggressively covering the camera lens during arguments or scenes of explicit violence. The strategy of the hand-held camera brings a great sense of reality to the footage, a quality that is enhanced by the lack of composition and the sole use of diegetic sound. Because of this, the horror felt during the film is not actually generated by the zombies (although when they are seen, these reanimated corpses are particularly grotesque) but by the contrast between the normality of the locations and the increasingly volatile relationships between the characters. To this end, the film suggests that in situations in which we are positioned in direct threat our capacity to listen to others and work with others is our greatest strength for arguing and bickering (over such trivial matters as cigarettes and alcohol) leads only to more violence and more death.

As an interesting aside, The Zombie Diaries positions its antagonistic pandemic in contemporary real-world events: the opening voice-over is a montage of news reports chronicling the emergence of Avian Flu. Whilst the film does not overtly say this is the cause of the outbreak, it intimates its enough. As the characters discuss their situation, they speculate on what else could have caused the epidemic, with one suggesting “another terrorist threat”. The idea that the virus may have been released by terrorists is consolidated by another character who verbally equates the pandemic with the events of September 11 2001, saying that in the morning everything was normal but by the afternoon everything had changed because of one singular act. Whilst these comments position the narrative in relation to world-wide issues, the indication that the virus is related to the movement of livestock is reiterated by scenes in the third diary in which the group’s leader, who fears more than anything else contamination, insists that her fellow survivors wash their hands and feet in a bucket of disinfectant before entering the house. Such scenes of cleaning before entering a defined hygienic clearly recall the government imposed controls during the BSE crisis and so successfully aligns the fantastical narrative of the undead with the very real events that took place in the UK.

The success of the tension built within the film can be mostly attributed to the strong sense of realism that pervades the film: the dialogue is consistently naturalistic and, at times, feels as if it has been ad-libbed, a quality which only adds to the idea of recording events as they ‘happen’. The use of real locations as sets compounds this sense of realism. In addition to this the narrative itself is bound to reality. Instead of narrative events slipping into horror film cliché, it unfolds in a logical manner as the necessities of survival begin to dictate actions and events: after a few days of the country being in the grip of the pandemic the power goes out, forcing the contemporary citizens to revert to primitive means of sourcing light and warmth by making fire. This is then followed by the twin search for food and other survivors. Whilst at first food and water is abundant it soon begins to run out, necessitating excursions into the zombie infested shopping centres to loot supplies. And, as those supplies dwindle, rationing is enforced and life’s luxuries and addictions are voided in the face of the threat posed by the zombie hordes. Self defence becomes the optimum consideration. With only a few survivors possessing either a hand gun or hunting rifle, the breaking into shops and businesses becomes increasingly dangerous, and all the more so as one character points out “we’re running out of bullets”.

Perhaps one of the greatest strengths of The Zombie Diaries is the clarity by which it depicts a national catastrophe: although both the characters and audience are aware that the pandemic is successfully infecting the populace, the actual result of that is never actually seen. Instead, this horrific event is hinted at through fragments of news reports, fleeting images of vast empty landscapes and carefully composed shots of vacant suburban streets and car parks. The horror lies not what is seen but in what is not been seen.

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