George A. Romero never cottoned to the use of the word “zombies” to describe the “ghouls” in his genre defining debut, Night of the Living Dead. As he wrote in his introduction to Nights of the Living Dead: An Anthology, Romero hadn’t intended to make Ben a person of color. He cast Duane Jones because he was “hands down, the best, within our puny budget, to play it” (xvi). When Ben, a black man and the only survivor from the principal cast, is wrongly shot to death, Romero accidentally made a powerful statement about race in America. But that’s the thing with allegories and politics in film: They’re there whether the creators intended them or not.
Because the poster hanging behind the producers in the “Day of the Dead: Bloodline — Reviving Horror” feature says, “Love means never having to say you’re a zombie” I get the feeling that the creators didn’t intend to make zombies an allegory for sexual trauma. But before the opening credits roll, Max (Johnathon Schaech) has tackled Zoe (Sophie Skelton) to the ground and ripped her shirt open, intent on raping her. He stops when a zombie bites him. Zoe later captures him in (sort-of) zombie form and needs his blood to find a cure for the zombie virus. So they shackle him in her lab, where he repeatedly tells her, “You are mine.” She tells her lover Baca (Marcus Vanco) that, “Every time I talk, think, or look at him, I have to relive the worst fucking day of my life.” She is using the language of trauma, the constant reliving that those suffering from PTSD deal with, to describe the way Max makes her feel. The metaphor should’ve been great, but was cast aside for over-the-top-gore and confusing inter-character drama .
That’s not to say that Day of the Dead: Bloodline doesn’t have bright spots. Johnathon Schaech is excellent as Max. His smile, featured in nearly all of the movie’s advertising, is terrifying. The dried cracked lips the makeup artists applied made me compulsively re-apply chapstick as I watched. But the movie just has so many issues.
As good as the zombie make up is, the gore in Day of the Dead: Bloodline is too over the top. Seeing blood geyser out as a zombie tears a jugular is cool once, but the effects teams has blood shooting with every bite. While the movie was striving to be entertaining over realistic, the spraying viscera stopped shocking and started boring after the third or fourth victim in the first two minutes was bitten.
The biggest issues were with the script, though. There is a ton of exposition in the dialogue, especially early on. At a party, Zoe’s best friend Abby tells her boyfriend that she’s, “Trying to get the shy one out of her shell.” The problem with the line, and this kind of dialogue, is that Zoe and Abby’s boyfriend already know this is what Abby is doing. The only people who might not know are audience members who just returned from making popcorn. Zoe falls very clearly into the “smart-girl-who-studies-too-hard” trope.
The dialogue doesn’t really sound good even when the characters are genuinely talking to each other either. They say exactly what they mean, like Zoe’s assistant saying, “Maybe God doesn’t want us to reverse what happened.” Which leads to confusing dynamics: Why would Zoe’s assistant say that to Zoe and keep working? That plot never gets picked back up.
Other characters have motivation issues as well. Miguel (Jeff Gum) is the leader at the base. Where Rhodes in the excellent original Day of the Dead has turned on the scientists because his men have been killed acquiring specimens, Miguel has agreed to send his men out to get antibiotics to cure a child of pneumonia when they start dying. Even making that decision, he is extremely antagonistic toward Zoe. There’s never a satisfying explanation for his animosity, though the movie does attempt to explain it.
The last problem with the script is just how stupid all of the characters are. It’s a trope in slasher movies that the teenagers do stupid things. But their brains aren’t fully developed yet and typically, they’re drunk. The sober adults in Day of the Dead: Bloodline don’t think to put a muzzle over the mouth of the zombie they’ve shackled to the wall. When Zoe is the only person who knows the code to a safe in a zombie-infested building, she doesn’t share it with a soldier. Instead, she goes with them. When stalking the hallways in that zombie-infested building, the soldiers don’t have a rear guard. Take a guess where a zombie pops up.
Day of the Dead: Bloodline could’ve been great. It took the DNA from George A. Romero’s original and tried to splice in a story about sexual assault, but perhaps took on too much. It failed as a reimagining and as a metaphor.
Day of the Dead: Bloodline is now available on Blu-Ray, DVD, and Digital HD.
WICKED RATING: 4/10
Director: Hèctor Hernández Vicens
Writers: Mark Tonderai and Lars Jacobson
Stars: Sophie Skelton, Johnathon Schaech, Jeff Gum, Marcus Vanco
Release: February 6, 2018 (Blu Ray, DVD, and Digital HD)
Studio/ Production Co: Lionsgate
Budget: $8 Million (estimated)