I and the Delightful Miss E both have colds this weekend, so we decided to have a lazy weekend in the house, watching monster documentaries. We weren’t quite as lazy as the pictured monster, who couldn’t even be bothered lifting his head through most of the weekend, but about the only time my pulse rose above resting level was when I learnt about the kinds of horrors that ordinary citizens in Madrid have to endure. And my god, were they horrible. It’s nice to sit safe in your home learning about the kinds of troubles that people in the Western Hemisphere face, being reminded of how much more civilized life in Asia is. Although I must say that I sometimes got the impression that the third documentary I watched wasn’t real. Sometimes it just seemed, well, acted. Here is my review of the three documentaries I watched.
Rec: Violent zombie bio-containment in Madrid
Rec is an accidentally-shot documentary about an incident in a Madrid apartment block, filmed a few years ago. The film starts off as a simple TV show, with a presenter and her cameraman planning to spend a night with the Madrid fire brigade filming their activities for a show called While You Were Sleeping. I think they must have changed the name of this show for the documentary because I can’t find any evidence that it’s real, but it is an excellent idea for a TV show so I think people should make this kind of show. Anyway, after a few hours of boredom the team are called out to an incident in an apartment block, where a woman appears to be locked into her apartment, and the documentary crew go with them. When they arrive they are greeted by the apartment residents, who are in the hallway, and two policemen. The “normal incident” turns out to be a monster situation – some kind of zombie in the apartment attacks one of the policemen, and mayhem breaks out. However, before they can do anything to flee the building is surrounded by police and health inspectors and sealed off, and they are warned that any attempt to leave will have “drastic consequences.” They are then required to stay in the apartment block while, one by one, the residents and visitors turn into zombies. The whole thing is recorded by the documentary crew.
This documentary is genuinely one of the most terrifying films I’ve ever seen, after The Descent – which we all know was just a movie. The people are so ordinary and unprepared: the residents consist of an uptight mother and her daughter, some Chinese migrant textile workers, a seedy older man who thinks he still has it, and an intern from the local hospital. No one has any idea what’s happening until the dead start coming to life, and they all start blaming each other (until they settle on the Chinese as scapegoats, of course). They can’t agree about a plan, refuse to follow the orders of the policeman, and don’t have any community feeling to bind them together in adversity. Meanwhile, they’re being lied to by the police outside and hunted down like animals by a terrible beast inside. The panic builds towards an incredibly tense and terrifying conclusion, and much of the action happens in claustrophobic, tangled spaces, or in the dark or just the light of a single spotlight. It’s one of those situations where everyone needs to understand the basic principles of zombie theory, be ready to apply them, and be ruthless and steadfast in sticking to them. Sadly they don’t do this and every time the group fragments or fails to get it fast enough, someone dies. The editing of the documentary is very well done too so it’s sparse with extraneous details, doesn’t make you feel sick or confused from the jumbling images, and gives you a clear sense of what’s going on. It’s so good it could be a movie, and indeed I did feel like I was watching a movie as the facts were being unveiled. Unfortunately a few years later an American director made a movie, Quarantine, based on the events in Madrid, and in watching the preview for that movie I got a spoiler showing me how the situation finally is resolved. My advice is not to watch the trailer for Quarantine. Why do people put the ending in the trailer? That’s crazy.
This documentary is hard going but very powerful and educational, and it again reinforces the lessons learnt in The Descent: if you’re up against a countable number of undead/generally grey-skinned opponents, and your resources and strength are limited but you have a couple of good weapons, absolutely the best thing to do is to take a stand in one, strong, defensible position and destroy them as they come at you. Do not attempt to run and hide, do not try to find out more about what is going on than you immediately need to know, do not split up and most of all destroy them before you start to run out of energy, light, or esprit de corps. Especially if you are in a building surrounded by police, so all you need to do is survive until they can work out what to do. And most of all, don’t go creeping around in dark hallways and rooms trying to work out who is still alive and what is going on. The lessons of this movie will help anyone who is faced with a supernatural or viral zombie threat of the kind we all need to prepare for.
Trollhunter: The truth about Norway’s troll control program
Trollhunter is a found-footage documentary, based apparently on 283 minutes of footage that turned up at a Norwegian TV station and was verified and pieced together by its editors. The documentary was filmed by some college students who were originally on the trail of an unlicensed bear hunter, only to discover that he is actually a troll hunter. Initially cold, he finally opens up to them and allows them to follow him in the troll hunt. Apparently Norway has always had trolls, but they are confined to specific territories and if they escape those territories the troll hunter, Hans, is sent to kill them. These trolls aren’t like D&D trolls: they’re up to 100m tall and enormously powerful, and they can smell the blood of a christian. The documentary tells us quite a bit about their biology and habits and so we learn that they aren’t supernatural at all, though they can be killed by exposure to sunlight: they’re just very big, very old predators that have been driven into the wilderness by humans. Unfortunately, the government is keeping their existence and the existence of the troll control program a secret, which might explain why the documentary is based on found footage.
This documentary isn’t terrifying like Rec but it is a fascinating, occasionally violent and disturbing, and very exciting kind of animal documentary, like going in pursuit of 100m tall lions or something. It has a good pace, although they do sometimes spend too much time filming shots of the fjords, and it unveils the truth of the situation in the same way that the filmmakers themselves learnt it, which is an excellent technique for documentaries about monsters: by giving this point-of-view style, the documentary maker encourages the viewer to feel like they have themselves stumbled upon these hidden facts about the supernatural world, and so makes the viewer more likely to believe the truth of the story – though obviously as an avid RPG player, I didn’t need any convincing as to the existence of trolls. I just didn’t realize they were so big! Or so well controlled by the Norwegian government, which is apparently up to its neck in conspiracy and cover-up to prevent panic and chaos. Usually when people talk about the dark secrets behind the Scandinavian success story it’s something about suicide or youth unemployment, but I never realized it was actually troll control. A fascinating insight into how the government handles supernatural problems in a stable, social democratic society and well worth watching.
Diary of the Dead: Badly made Zombie hoax
This “documentary” is really, really hard to believe. First of all, although it’s easy to believe that I could miss news about a single weird situation in an apartment in Madrid, it’s really hard to believe that the kind of chaos this documentary describes could have happened in the USA without my noticing it. For the brief period of the documentary it’s as if the world has ended, though obviously that can’t have happened since, well, I’m sitting here writing this and the person who filmed this documentary openly admits that she was able to edit it and release it to us. I really hate it when documentaries about serious subjects like zombie incidents try to exaggerate the importance of them, like the world has ended or something. The second hint as to the falsity of this documentary is its title, which is clearly a play on the names of the famous zombie movies – I even have a suspicion that Romero had a role in this. The third clue that it’s a hoax is that it appears to be acted, and badly acted at that. It’s like a bunch of student actors thought they could reproduce the success of the Blair Witch Project, but through a hoax zombie outbreak. Only they did it really badly.
The documentary claims to be the work of some film students who were out in the woods making a horror movie for class when a huge zombie outbreak occurred in the USA. As the social fabric breaks apart they travel across Pennsylvania in a Winnebago, first to find their families and then to find a friend, while one of the students films everything that happens. It is this film that becomes the documentary. Thus the documentary makers claim to have been in position to film the situation as it happened, though they admit that they edited a little and added soundtrack and effects “to scare you: because perhaps if you’re scared you won’t make the mistakes we made.” Unfortunately, I was really unconvinced that they were doing anything except making a B-grade movie. The acting is so bad as to be self-evidently badly acted, and the narrator tacks on this self-important moralizing about the role of the cameraman and the media, as if they were a seasoned (but tedious) war photographer, rather than a jumped-up student; and this moralizing is almost begging you not to take their “documentary” seriously, especially since in between the moralistic voice-over we’re constantly being reminded that they have no choice in doing what they’re doing. Also they all seem emotionally really shallow compared to the behavior of the people in Madrid. I know those people were Spanish, but they reacted more realistically and emotionally to the deaths of strangers than our student documentary-makers do to the deaths of their own family and friends. While it takes the people in that apartment a good half the movie to work out that they’ve stepped out of ordinary life and into a horror movie, these kids figure it out as soon as they hear a radio broadcast about a single dead person coming back to life. After that, they’re acting like survivors in a zombie movie with nary a whisper of complaint. It just doesn’t work. As a documentary, this movie is uninformative, overblown, overly moralistic and shallow. As a work of fiction (which is what I think it really is), this movie is badly acted, self-referential, poorly scripted and sentimental.
It’s also really cheap to portray a movie as a documentary without warning the viewer. Honesty is essential to the production of documentary film: how are the people desperately trying to tell us what happened in Madrid or Norway going to be believed if there craft is undermined by movies posing as documentaries? People should know what they’re seeing from the start, or the educational and important messages of a film like Rec will be missed amongst the dross. So, give Diary of the Dead a miss but watch Troll Hunter and Rec if you want to educate yourself about how to deal with the ever-present zombie and troll threat.