Rethinking the new Day of the Dead(s)

I feel little to no compadre-ship with my fellow horror critics. I feel like that guy in middle school who is listening to They Might Be Giants while everyone else is enjoying the works of Milli Vanilli. Oh, wait—I was that guy. Yep, it seems no matter how much I try to integrate myself into this niche clique, I’ll always be the odd-man out. I’ll always be the guy who is on the periphery of taste and popularity for those tastes. Girl, you know it’s true!

This review won’t help my case at all. You see, the horror community, once again, has decided to take a collective shit on a) another remake and b) another “sacred” remake, this time on Steve Miner’s take on George Romero’s “Day of the Dead”. The outright hatred for this flick is palpable and, if you read the blogs, belligerently laughable. Is it really that bad? Fervor like this (actually, it was probably more heated) was last seen a couple of years ago with the direct-to-video release of “Day of the Dead 2: Contagium”. It was universally despised and I, having obviously something better to do at the time, managed to miss it, but, with the “Day of the Dead” remake deliciously surprising me, it put “Contagium” back on my radar. Could this film be as bad as everyone said? Really?

I am going to say…no. (With reservations, of course.)

Let me start off by saying that I do enjoy the zombie work of Romero, but, can we be really honest here? The man is no genius. Sure, for all intents and purposes he “invented” the modern zombie film, let’s give him that. But, if you’ve watched any of his post-“Night of the Living Dead” films, you come to realize he’s a great idea man, and, sorry to say, quite the shit filmmaker. His ideas are utterly fantastic and, in the hands of a more capable screenwriter and director, as in the case of the remake of “Dawn of the Dead”, much more accessibly horrific. Just think if “Martin” or “Season of the Witch” or “The Crazies” were directed by someone who had an innovative vision—they would actually be remembered and not just by cult film compelteists. Even the Dario Argento cut of “Dawn of the Dead” is vastly superior to his own because Argento actually has a sense of style.

I know what some of you are saying: “Well, if he had a budget and the technology, those films would have been better!” Oh yeah, “splatfan69”? Then check out the reviews, by your own peers no less, for “Land of the Dead” and “Diary of the Dead”. (For the record, I did love the skeletal structure of “Land” and have yet to see “Diary”.)

Let’s face it: Romero is just, well, okay. But it’s his legion of fans that continue to not only hold him up on a brain-splattered pedestal, but also, like the mindless zombies they enjoy watching, collectively head-shot any attempt to reinvent or redux Romero, sight unseen, simply because they need to keep a forum’s thread alive. And this brings me to “Day of the Dead”. The remake.

The original was about a group of survivors, mostly assholes, trapped in an underground army bunker while the world rots above them. The gore quotient was wonderfully high, that opening dream sequence scare is a pants-shitting classic and it introduced to zombie mythos Bub, an intelligent zombie—once again a great Romero idea that he really didn’t do anything with.

Screenwriter Jeffrey Riddick—he of “Final Destination” fame—has taken a tiny thread of the original’s plot and a couple of character’s names and completely reinvents them, much like the way James Gunn did for the “Dawn of the Dead” redux, and while Riddick doesn’t have Gunn’s flair for snappy gallows laughs or even basic conversational skills, he does deliver on set-up and reasoning. Even better, director Steve Miner, who many horror fans remember as the dude who did “House” and “Friday the 13th Part 2” (but for whom many black people remember as the motherfucker who did “Soul Man” with C. Thomas Howell) takes the whole fast-running and intelligent zombies to a whole new level, which is entertainingly appreciated.

Yes, I like zombies that can crawl on ceilings. Sue me.

Taking place in the town of Leadville, Colorado (in reality 150 miles from where I write this now, but, in the film, half a world away as it was filmed in Bulgaria, the home of “Megasnake”!), the United States Army, led awesomely by Ving Rhames, unbelievably by Mena Suvari and irritatingly by Nick Cannon, are trying to keep the rural town in check as a rather bad strain of the flu breaks out. Of course, when the nosebleeds start and the instant-face rotting occurs, you know that this ain’t a springtime bug, but a case of zombification. After an excitingly paced escape from a hospital (complete with said ceiling-crawling zombies), they make their way to an underground bunker, as if that were to really help.

In-between the running and shooting, Suvari and her baby bro hash-out their feelings, the likable vegetarian cadet Bud transforms into a likable vegetarian zombie and Nick Cannon says afro-wacky things like “Oh, no you didn’t!” and “Now that’s what I’m talking about, bitch!”. (It’s the kind of performance Will Smith would have given in “I Am Legend” if it was made in 1994, hot on the heels of “Bad Boys”.)

While Riddick, as he proved with “Final Destination” is a master of pacing—he keeps things chugging along at a heart-palpitation inducing rate—his dialog is pretty bad. Luckily, there’s barely any of it, what, with all the running and all, so it is an easily forgivable sin. The set-pieces, from the hospital and radio station to the bunker itself are extremely suspenseful and, when the action does come, intensely satisfying. Miner, no matter the crap he’s handed, has always been able to give it a professional sheen, classing the thing up way more than it should be. “Day of the Dead” is no exception.

But I really did like it. No, it’s not as good as the “Dawn of the Dead” remake, but I’d say it is on par with the original “Day of the Dead”, even though it is a completely different film. I had a great time watching it and, Nick Cannon aside, find it purely entertaining and worth a Friday night rental. I’d even go as far as to tell you to buy it, because who wouldn’t want that spectacularly awful lenticular vomiting-zombie cover? It’s a selling point for me!

Speaking of selling points, what a couple of asshole marketing geniuses James Dudelson and Ana Clavell are. They made a zombie film as well and, after somehow gaining the rights to the “Day of the Dead” moniker, slapped a number “2” on the cover and proclaimed loudly they made a “part prequel, part sequel, and a total gut-ripping, gore-spewing homage to the original!”

Ahem…if you say so, guys.

“Day of the Dead 2: Contagium”, as far as straight-to-video films go, is actually pretty decent. Hell, I’ll go as far as to say that I enjoyed a good lot of it. Set in a psychiatric hospital some thirty-seven years after the original zombie outbreak, we follow a group of patients and doctors as they transform into zombies over the course of a few days. It’s astoundingly fascinating to watch as a character study, but it’s got as much to do with “Day of the Dead” as Fulci’s “Zombi 2” had to do with “Dawn of the Dead”, i.e., nothing but the need for a quick buck. It would have been just as easy to call the movie “Contagium” and be done with it, but then again, if they had done that, would I be talking about it right now? Probably not. So they succeeded on that front.

But once again the blogosphere and I disagree: I had heard so many bad things about this movie, I was expecting the worst. I figured I’d be watching a shot-on-camcorder backyard student film and when a slick, somewhat professional picture came on screen, to be far, it elevated my liking of the flick about 40%. The acting is better-than-average for a straight-to-video movie, especially considering most of them have to bust out the drama chops to play mentally handicaps. Like the “Day” remake, the dialog is also pretty bad—okay, very bad—but it is the horrendously laggy final third of the film that threatens the whole thing. Once we lose sight of the characters and wallow in the zombie attack, it becomes so drearily rote. An edit of about twenty-or-so minutes would have made a great difference.

Not that you really give a shit, right? It’s a travesty to all things Romero so no matter what plusses these films have, you are automatically going to hate it. I know how some of you guys work. But, maybe, just maybe, there are a few of you out there who still have your own brain, a few of you who want to make your own decision about what entertains you. Go into these looking for an entertaining, mostly disposable zombie movie and you’ll be pleasantly rewarded, especially with “Day of the Dead”. But, if you go into it with a Joe Pilato-sized chip on your shoulder, nothing is going to please you anyway, so why bother?

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