The Zombie Diaries (2006)
I imagine that working in cinema verité is like learning to ride a bike. It's a cool idea, but when you first try it, it's much harder than it looks. And if you try to do too much before you're ready, you have a good chance of crashing. That's what The Zombie Diaries reminded me of. It starts out well: a little wobbly, but going in more or less the right direction, then it hits a bump, and starts straying out of line, and then it takes a swerve, and suddenly it's on the ground, bruised and bleeding, with the bike on top of it.
Directors/writers Michael Bartlett and Kevin Gates had a good idea for a plot, involving changes of point of view, shifting forward and back in story time, and the general viral outbreak that they built their story around. This would have been easy enough to keep up with for a normal shooting technique, I think, but cinema verité takes what would have been interesting and makes it obscure and confusing; most of the time I wasn't sure who was being filmed, or even who was holding the camera. And I'm terrible with names, so given that a lot of the shots were poorly lit and made by someone walking or running, I didn't really get to recognize many of the faces, either. Admittedly, they probably chose cinema verité because it was cheaper, but then I think they should not have been so ambitious in their plot.
The movie starts out pretty well with a viral outbreak spreading throughout the world. It hasn't really hit London yet, and the citizens are mildly concerned, but mostly going about their business. A news team has driven out to the country to interview a farmer about his brush with the virus (I forget exactly what that brush was), but when they get there, he's nowhere to be found. While they're out there, they hear that the virus has suddenly hit London hard, and the city has plunged into chaos. At that point, night has fallen, the power goes out, and they still haven't found the farmer, although they've been waiting in his house. Without giving too much away, zombies shortly appear, and the news crew runs into the woods. Here's where things started to go bad for me. A little bit of camera time where I can't tell what's going on is fine. I think it adds to the realism of the camera, and can add to the suspense. But if it's done for too long, I just get bored. I've gotten the idea that, yes, they're being chased or attacked by zombies and are scared. Can we move on, already? What, more running?
When they stop running and build a fire in the woods, I was pretty much back on board again, although I questioned their wisdom in building a fire for all the zombies to see. After a short scene around the fire, though, we suddenly jump to a month ahead, with different people and a different setting. At least, I think they're different, because the two characters that I really got a good look at out of the four people from the first part are nowhere to be seen. I'm still sort of OK with this, because I think this is going to be something like World War Z, where the story is told as a series of shorts with different characters (that thought turns out to be wrong). But I didn't know that was coming, so now I have to rebuild my interest in the story with that perspective in mind.
The second scene is pretty uninteresting, and I wonder where it's going, when we jump to a third scene, with yet more characters that I don't recognize. At this point I've totally lost track of who's who, and don't really care. I can tell that there are some people that don't like each other, and there are other people that do like each other, and they all shoot a zombie at some point or another. There's more to it than that, but I don't want to ruin anything for the people who choose to watch this that have more ability to figure things out than me.
There's not too much tension in the movie, except for a few good scenes, because most of the time when anything exciting happens, the guy with the camera starts to run and you can't tell what's happening. I think much of the tension is supposed to come from the interpersonal relationships, which is good, but the focus is so much on these that the zombies almost seem an afterthought. Unfortunately, again because of the handi-cam, we can't really see these relationships portrayed as well as they deserve to be.
Bartlett and Gates show promise, but I don't think this particular venture worked out as well as it could have. I think if I had watched once or twice more, I probably would have been better able to figure out what was going on, but the movie didn't pull me in enough for me to want to do that. It's getting to the point where I wish filmmakers would just use the handicam without feeling like they have to excuse it with the pretext of cinema verité. We know it's a budget film, but show us what you can do by framing your shots carefully and making sure we can tell what's going on.