In many ways, Hollywood is living through its own zombie apocalypse. Intellectual properties long thought dead are rising from the grave as horrible mockeries of what they once were and shambling toward us in an unceasing wave to eat our brains while all we can do is turn our faces to Heaven and ask “Why?!?!?” There are reasons offered up, like the globalized movie market and a public resistant to new ideas, but none of them truly explain it. Things like a virtually shot-for-shot remake of “Cabin Fever” or a sex-swapped remake of “Overboard”…”OVERBOARD” FOR PETE’S SAKE…seem beyond rational justification.
That mystery is what this edition of KIMT’s Weekend Remake Throwdown will be taking on as we pit the underrated conclusion of a classic horror trilogy against its massively defective 21st century replicant. It’s “Day of the Dead” (1985) vs. “Day of the Dead: Bloodline” (2018) to try and answer the question “How the hell did anyone ever think this was a good idea?”
“Day of the Dead” (1985) is the third of George A. Romero’s zombie apocalypse flicks, the ones that created and defined an entirely new sub-genre of horror movies. We’re 50 years past Romero’s original “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) and besides the brain-eating obsession of “Return of the Living Dead” (1985) and the sprinting zombies of the remake “Dawn of the Dead” (2004), everybody is still pretty much repeating Romero to lesser and lesser effect: The dead rise, civilization and order collapses, and a small group of individuals are left desperately fighting to survive the zombie horde and each other. “The Walking Dead” has gone eight seasons and 115 episodes so far and still hasn’t gotten beyond that same basic storyline.
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In 1985’s “Day,” Romero brings us a band of civilians and soldiers in an underground storage facility converted to a military bunker in a world seemingly overrun by undead cannibals. They’ve lost contact with any other living humans and they’ve been reduced to spending most of their time trying not to kill each other. The main character is Sarah (Lori Cardille), a steel-willed scientist trying to find a way to destroy zombies who is caught between her demented superior, Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty), a man trying to teach zombies how to be good little boys and girls, and the eternally agitated Captain Rhodes (Joseph Pilato), the military commander trying to hold things together as he runs out of bullets, men, and time. There’s also Sarah’s lover (Anthony Dileo Jr.), a man shattered by the horror around him, and the bunker’s helicopter pilot and radio man (Terry Alexander and Jarlath Conroy), who have no use for either the military or the scientists as they build their own hetero-life partnership underground.
Oh, and there’s Bub (Sherman Howard). Bub is a zombie test subject that Dr. Logan is trying to educate and domesticate. Logan’s focus is on teaching Bub not to eat people and restoring in him at least a rudimentary level of intelligence…and it’s working! Bub no longer lusts after human flesh and is capable of appreciating music and even shooting a pistol, though training a zombie to use a gun is probably the worst notion since the first caveman decided to see what would happen if he stuck his hand in the fire.
He just learned zombies always go for the softest parts of the body first.
“Day of the Dead” (1985) tends to get short shrift when people examine the original Romero trilogy. I think fans get a little perturbed at the whole Bub thing, as they like to think of zombies as a metaphor for death while Romero clearly thinks of them as a metaphor for humanity itself. As I think “Land of the Dead” (2005) showed, I’m not sure Romero exactly understands what that metaphor should be but the original “Day” was where he really started to treat zombies as characters and not just plot devices. I also think viewers in the much-less-woke mid 80s were nonplussed at a female lead so tough she makes Joan of Arc and Sarah Conner from “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991) look like shrinking violets. And I also believe audiences are put off by the general unpleasantness of “Day of the Dead” (1985). Yes, it’s a bit odd to use the word “pleasant” in the context of a film series where human beings are eaten by reanimated corpses but the living in the first two films mostly manage to keep their crap together. They’re under immense stress and facing imminent doom but they’re largely able to either work together or oppose each other in some semblance of normality. The folks in “Day of the Dead” (1985) are losing their grip on humanity and sliding toward madness, as demonstrated by dialog that contains more profanity and racial slurs than an Eddie Murphy stand-up comedy show in 1986. There’s an emotional ugliness that’s difficult to enjoy.
I’ve always loved “Day of the Dead” (1985), though, precisely because Romero is honestly trying to do something different with his creation. He’s not simply repeating himself but is struggling to show viewers something they haven’t seen before and when you do that, it usually works but not always how you intended. For example, the more you rewatch the film, the more you can see Captain Rhodes as one of the most sympathetic villains in cinema. He’s awful but it becomes hard to deny that his awfulness is a completely normal response to the utterly impossible situation he’s in. In the end, Rhodes becomes an avatar for the relentless power of the human spirit, persisting in the face of a brutal and uncaring world.
It's 2018 and more people know what a zombie is than know what a Walkman is. What a crazy world.
That may be a little deep for a zombie flick, even one by Romero, but rest assured there will be no such philosophical indulgences when it comes to “Day of the Dead: Bloodline.” You can’t dive deep into the movie equivalent of a stagnant puddle in the gutter. “Day of the Dead: Bloodline” is terrible. It’s only saving grace is that the zombie genre is full of so many films that are stab-yourself-in-the-eye-with-a-sewing-needle atrocious that merely being really, really bad feels almost tolerable by comparison.
It begins with the first ten pages of the screenplay slavishly following the direction of every half-baked book on screenwriting published in the last 30 years. “Bloodline” opens in the midst of a zombie rampage, flashes back before the dead rose to hammer the audience over the head with a couple of plot points, flashes forward several years to where the story actually begins, and then hits us over the head again with a 2x4 of narration to cover the rest of the exposition. It barely even qualifies as the start of a movie and feels more like the opening of a video game that you have to sit through before you can start playing it.
A young medical student named Zoe (Sophie Skelton) is drawing blood from a creepy guy named Max (Johnathon Schaech) with a unique blood condition. As if his serial killer haircut didn’t give it away, Max reveals he is psychotically obsessed with Zoe and attacks her, only to be chomped by a convenient zombie. Zoe survives the initial outbreak and winds up five years later as the chief doctor of a military base/refugee camp in the side of a mountain. A little girl in the camp has an infectious disease and Zoe proposes they head back to her old medical school to get the special antibiotics needed to treat her.
"Why so serious?"
Back at the school, Zoe runs into the now zombified-Max, who pulls a “Cape Fear” and hangs on to the underside of Zoe’s Hummer all the way back to the military base. Max then sneaks back inside the base before being caught. Eventually Zoe discovers that Max is the key to creating a zombie vaccine, but of course Max escapes again, the zombies pour into the base, and the whole thing turns into an evil boyfriend movie from the Lifetime channel. Throw in a conflict between Zoe’s empty-eyed lover, the bizarrely-named Baca (Marcus Vanco), and his brother (Jeff Gum), the overbearing and strict commander of the military base, as well as a whole bunch of supporting characters so generic and unformed you could have replaced them all with stop-motion Play-Doh people and no viewer would have noticed, and that’s the remake they came up with 33 years later.
“Day of the Dead: Bloodline” is awful in so many ways. It’s stupid, both logistically in simply making sense and emotionally in presenting us with characters who behave like normal people. There’s a point in the film where Zoe is the catalyst for an amazingly dumb plan that gets some soldiers killed. After desperately scrambling back to the base, the commander confronts Zoe and every single solider that just watched their buddies eaten alive because of Zoe sides with her against the commander. Why? Because the script says she’s the good guy and he’s the bad guy and that’s all that matters.
The acting, outside of Johnathon Schaech, is consistently meh and when someone like Schaech is blowing everyone else in your movie off the screen, it means your casting director should never work in visual media again. Schaech actually creates a memorable looking villain by enhancing his zombie makeup with his own facial contortions and if they’d decided to invert the remake into Schaech as an intelligent zombie trying to survive a bunch of humans, they might have come up with something noteworthy. But they didn’t.
It honestly looks at times like they shot this thing on old sets from "The Land of the Lost."
To be fair, Sophie Skelton isn’t entirely useless. When she’s playing scenes like she’s the third friend of the main character in a rom-com, Skelton is almost passable. Anytime she has to go beyond that comfort zone it’s a Mark-Wahlberg-in-The-Happening cringe worthy display. But Marcus Vanco might as well be a piece of uncooked veal, Jeff Gum has about as much screen presence as a wet sheep, and I defy you to even remember a single other actor a day after watching “Bloodline.”
The direction is so pedestrian it should get a ticket for jaywalking. The special effects are so ordinary they’re like white noise. The sets look like they were borrowed from a community theatre production of “World War Z: The Musical.” Even the costuming is so boring it could be marketed as a remedy for insomnia. Generally, you can level a whole variety of criticisms at modern remakes but at least they usually look a lot better than the original because of improvements in filmmaking technology and technique. Yet “Day of the Dead” (1985) is so visually superior to its 2018 remake that it’s almost laugh-out-loud funny.
Yes, Romero was a cinema genius but he was working with technical and financial limitations the makers of “Day of the Dead: Bloodline” could hardly imagine and he still managed to come up with scene after scene that look and flow better practically and thematically than everything in the remake put together. And Romero’s cast, even when they’re going so far over the top they’re virtually in orbit, are striking and engaging in a way that makes their 2018 counterparts look like grub worms.
The real secret to a long-lasting relationship? Sharing tank tops.
There’s no way anyone read the screenplay for “Bloodline” and honestly thought it was worth producing. There’s no way anyone saw the first week of footage from the set and thought it was going to be worth seeing. But it still got made. There’s no way anyone thought it was ever going to make any money. But it still got made. It’s not even the first remake of the original. But it still got made.
“Day of the Dead” was made when Hollywood was still interested in telling stories. Yes, the industry cared about money more than anything else but it could still care about other things. Today, Hollywood doesn’t care about telling stories. It’s doesn’t even care about making movies. It manufactures product to satisfy certain markets. “Day of the Dead: Bloodline” was made because Netflix and Hulu and On Demand need new content. It doesn’t have to be good. I’m not sure they even want it to be good. They just want it to be fresh and on schedule and easily promotable to viewers. There’s no time for screenwriters to get stuck figuring out how to make a scene work or make sure the first thing on the screen is important when the last scene comes finally around. There’s no time for directors to think about what they’re doing. There’s no time for actors to start out small and actually grow into their careers. There’s a global maw that needs to be fed every second of every minute of every hour of every day. There’s no time to stop. There’s no time to pause. There’s no time but to grab whatever’s handy and keep feeding it.
Would it surprise you to know she buries herself in compost in this scene, then shows up in the next looking like she took a shower in between? Then you haven't been paying attention.
Some think we keep getting remakes and retreads and reboots because Hollywood has run out of creativity. But you can’t run out of creativity. The problem is that no creative impulse is wasted on making movies. It’s focused on meeting production schedules and planning viral marketing strategies and exploiting new opportunities for monetization. It used to be that you made a motion picture and everything flowed from that. Now a film is the last part of the equation and gets thrown together after every decision has already been made and every angle already been calculated.
“Day of the Dead” (1985) wins this Throwdown. It’s not quite a masterpiece like “Night of the Living Dead” (1968). For example, Romero was so intent on making Sarah strong that he forgot to have her do anything genuinely significant in the story. She’s one of the strongest yet most passive characters you’ll ever see. But when you watch the original, you’re seeing the work of an artist who is trying to engage you both emotionally and intellectually. “Day of the Dead: Bloodline” (2018) exists to fill the space on your screen until something else comes along. Heaven forbid you be left alone with your own thoughts.
Day of the Dead (1985)
Written and directed by George A. Romero.
Starring Lori Cardille, Terry Alexander, Joseph Pilato, Jarlath Conroy, Anthony Dileo Jr., Richard Liberty, Sherman Howard, Gary Howard Klar, Ralph Marrero, John Amplas, Phillip G. Kellams, Taso N. Stravrakis, and Greg Nicotero.
Day of the Dead: Bloodline (2018)
Written by Mark Tonderal and Lars Jacobson.
Directed by Hector Hernandez Vicens.
Starring Johnathon Schaech, Sophie Skelton, Jeff Gum, Marcus Vanko, Lillian Blankenship, Ulyana Chan, Shari Watson, Atanas Srebrew, Mark Rhino Smith, Nick Loeb, and Vladimir Mihailov.