The latest in what is sure to be a long spun-out series of handheld ‘homemade’-style horror films, following on from the J.J. Abrahams-produced Cloverfield, George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead, and the earlier brit-zom flick The Zombie Diaries, [REC] is a fairly bland addition to the canon, lacking any real originality or genre innovation, but in its terrifying coda doing just about enough to warrant a sit-through of its brief 78 minute duration.
The film begins in purely cinéma-vérité style, with breezy television presenter Ángela and her cameraman colleague Pablo conducting a documentary about their local fire department, casually detailing the montony of their day-to-day routines. But on their first callout they, shock-horror, end up stumbling into an apartment block being slowly zombified, which is then promptly sealed off by the authorities as a biological quarantine-zone. Will all of the residents escape alive? Have a guess.
The startlingly unoriginal plot is matched by some hideously hackneyed old horror cliches, which far from being subtle tributes to other genre classics, feel a bit like recyling; the sealed-off building full of the undead trick has been done much better elsewhere, and with more of a social commentary edge – the opening of Romero’s own Dawn of the Dead (1977) springs to mind. The zombies themselves are most reminscent of the Rage-infectees of 28 Days Later (2002), but with less bite (sorry), while the inevitable zombie-child, zombie old lady, sinister authority figures and such like are all depressingly present and correct.
The handheld camerawork and faux-documentary setup obviously recalls The Blair Witch Project (1999) and The Last Broadcast (1998), both of which more elegantly posited their setups; [REC] does little to make the film seem like a genuine documentary gone wrong, and the lack of any characterisation of the documentarists does beg the question – why do they care so much about filming everything, insistently refusing to stop despite the concerns of those around them? Ángela and Pablo may well be keen to get a great scoop, but surely this motivation would really only go so far?
There are other problems, too. The pacing is almost completely wrong, so when the rather laboured scares arrive, they feel far too predictable. An unwise foray near the end of the film into religious iconography, explaining away much more than is really needed about what exactly has been going on is clunky and unneccesary. Horror films are always much more sinister when not fully explained – Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for one. Instead, a tape recording of a scientist explaining his actions unfortunately recall the horror-slapstick of either Young Frankenstein (1974) or Evil Dead II (1987).
There is so ordinariness about [REC] that it comes as a complete surprise that its last few scenes are actually so successfully scary, the film having done little to suggest that it would be so; even a slightly cheesy Silence of the Lambs-style shift into night-vision can be forgiven. The final ascent into the top of the apartment block gives the willies as much as Blair Witch‘s inevitably violent denouement, illustrating that directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza are more than capable of doing a good job; let’s hope they can be a bit more original next time around. While [REC]‘s snappy 80 minute duration means it doesn’t outstay its welcome, it is a shame that the first 70 are nowhere near as tense as its final 10.