My love for Romero and his legacy of flesh-munching living dead knows no bounds. Of all my favorite films, the original “Dead Trilogy” is a collection of films that I return to more than almost any other. As I write this, I have Romero’s Day of the Dead, much maligned for years before reappraisals began labeling it the classic it truly is, projected onto my wall. Miguel is getting his amputated arm stub painfully cauterized at this very moment. The film has grown to become my personal favorite of the three movies, and in the wake of Romero’s death just this past year, the news of yet another remake of Day seemed less than ideal. Afterall, we already had one bargain basement “sequel” and a previous remake from 2008.
That film, directed by the terribly underrated Steve Miner, was ripped to shreds by critics and fans upon its release. Personally, I remember it being mindless, popcorn munching fun. Certainly, Day 08′ didn’t hold a candle to the original but was passable as an entertaining hour-and-a-half spent with a friend on a Friday night. Would I still feel that way today? I’m not sure. I remember next to nothing from that initial viewing outside of Nick Cannon making me groan for some reason…I’m sure it was bad, whatever it was.
I say all of this to say, despite my reverence for Romero, I wouldn’t outright write-off a remake of one of his films. I tend to feel that any remake can be worthwhile if a filmmaker has a vision and something unique to bring to the table. Day of the Dead: Bloodline, however, has quite the uphill battle ahead of itself in search of an audience. The few reviews that I’ve skimmed have thoroughly trashed it based heavily on the production’s mere existence. I won’t be doing that. So, did I think the film managed to stand on its own two shambling feet? Kind of.
For those who wish to remain spoiler-free, skip down to the final three paragraphs. Prior to the film’s release, there weren’t many plot details out there other than a super vague synopsis referencing a med student haunted by a “half-human, half-zombie hellbent on destroying her world.” Certainly, that in and of itself has very little connection to Romero’s opus. Well, that doesn’t really paint the whole picture. The film opens in the midst of a fire and blood covered street as lightning fast “rotters” (can’t a modern zombie flick just call the undead…ya know, zombies?) rush around ripping people to shreds. Our heroine, Zoe (Sophie Skelton), is surveying the oncoming apocalypse happening around her before we quickly cut to four hours ago to the actual setup of the film. Certainly, this timeline juggling was done for no good reason other than a producer probably thought the film should open with a “bang”. Usually, when a film pulls this narrative trick it’s because the first act is going to be a snails paced slog to get through. Bloodline thankfully doesn’t have this problem. The entire film moves at a breakneck pace, leaving very little time to question the more outlandish aspects of the story.
Zoe is the star student of her class and left in charge of collecting samples from the A1 creeper, Max (Johnathon Schaech), whose blood is loaded with an unnatural amount of antibodies. Max also happens to have the hots for Zoe, but the feeling is far from mutual. Moments before all hell breaks loose and the dead begin rising from their graves, Max attempts to rape Zoe. Thankfully, he makes the mistake of doing so in the morgue…so, yeah – Max winds up an early snack from the newly risen corpses. After a final time jump, we’re now several years in the future and the film begins to resemble Romero’s a bit more as a small community has formed, managing to eek out an existence behind the fenced in walls of a military bunker. I won’t say much more about the plot, though there really isn’t that much more to say. The main trick up the sleeves of writers Lars Jacobson and Mark Tonderai is the relationship Zoe shares with reanimated Max.
This is where the film gets a bit tricky. It’s no secret that Schaech goes on to become this film’s take on Bub. Only, instead of a lovable ex-soldier zombie who shows traits of humanity, we get a despicable creeper, rape-y zombie who shows traits of humanity but who may also be the only hope for humanity. The implications taken at face value are pretty gross. You have a victim of sexual assault who must protect her attacker against the hothead military types. There’s a truly touching moment where Zoe allows Max to lick her face with his rotted, black gooed tongue in order to get a fresh blood sample. That was sarcasm, by the way. The thing is, I genuinely believe one of the two screenwriters was actually trying to say something here about rape culture. Unfortunately, that message got lost amongst the likely rewrites, wooden acting, and director Hèctor Hernández Vicens’s handling of the material.
Our human villain of the tale, Miguel (oddly named considering Miguel was one of the good guys from the original) is convinced Zoe and Max were an item pre-apocalypse. Her current beau, Baca stands as her one constant and when he begins to question her intentions with Max, the theme of “victim blaming” becomes apparent. Sexual assault has never been as hot button a topic as it is right now, and there are moments within Bloodline that almost make one think Romero may have been pleased with his living dead being used to tap into the social zeitgeist in such a way. Max is the spectre of Zoe’s assault and only she and him know the truth of what truly happened the night her world, and the world at large, completely fell apart. Only by facing her attacker head-on can she possibly save those she cares for. It’s a horrific scenario that is ripe with social commentary, but that’s where the Bloodline between Romero’s films and this begin and end.
Now leaving spoiler territory. What the film does well is present one set-piece after the other of over the top undead action. The effects team was working overdrive on this flick, and while surely a lot of the blood sprays on display were delivered in post, there’s enough Karo and latex flying across the screen to lend the effects work some actual heft. It’s the action/zombie flick vibe that brought to mind the gut-munchers of Italian zombie cinema. That cycle of filmmaking started up in Italy due to the success of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Those films were all derivative of Dawn in some fashion, with clumsy attempts at social relevance, buckets of gore, and horrendous dubbing. Bloodline lines up with that subset quite well. Necks are torn asunder, eyes plopped out, and intestines are choked on. The makeup design for Max is incredibly impressive. Schaech is given the difficult task of embodying a nearly dialogue-free role. Thankfully, the makeup allows every expression to shine through and Schaech manages to give the most lively performance of the bunch despite being very much unalive (you can count me now as an official member of The Church of Schaechology). The rest of the cast does not bode as well.
From moment one, it was clear the production was working with an international cast as entire roles seem dubbed over with generic “American voice”. Those who didn’t seem to be ADR’d to death were seemingly struggling against their accents to deliver believable performances. Skelton is the lead of the piece and her monotone delivery is probably the biggest drawback of the entire film. From wooden voiceover to blank stares, Skelton brings as much life to her character as the nameless background extras. Marcus Vanco as Baca is pretty to look at and does what he can with the macho, understanding boyfriend role. The most direct stand-in for a character from the original is Miguel in the Rhodes role. Because of the purposeful parallels, it simply caused this viewer to long for Joseph Pilato’s over the top maniacs.
For those few out there not yet burnt out on modern zombie cinema, you could do much, much worse than Day of the Dead: Bloodline. As I mentioned before, the pace is relentless. I was never bored, and in this day and age of direct to video/streaming titles all clamoring for attention, a film that manages to genuinely entertain is worth noting. While at some point there may have been the beginnings of a socially relevant zombie opus worthy of carrying the Day of the Dead name, what we have now is at least on par with goofy walking dead shoot-em-ups like Zombi 3. And, that is something I’m pretty much okay with.