It wasn’t intentional, but Bub the zombie has been the mascot of this year’s Shocktober. He was the face of our draft and, out of this whole month of movie madness, Day of the Dead is the only film we all three watched together. So I thought it would be appropriate to bring everything to a close by introducing everyone to Bub’s twisted nephew, Max. He sucks and I hate him, but he’s about the best thing the 2018 remake of Day of the Dead, subtitled “Bloodline,” has going for it.
You’d have to ask John about the rights pertaining to zombie movies, because it all seems really complicated. For one, in almost every zombie movie, the living dead aren’t actually called “zombies,” which makes me wonder if someone has that term copyrighted. In this franchise specifically, I know that at some point there was a split that left George Romero free to make “Dead” movies and his Night of the Living Dead cowriter, John Russo, the steward of “Living Dead” sequels. That came to a head in 1985, when Romero released his third film, Day of the Dead, and Dan O’Bannon came out with an adaptation of Russo’s book Return of the Living Dead. From that point on, it’s chaos. Like, it’s best to not even mention the Zombi series.
My point is the issue of who gets to make Living Dead films and what’s officially canon is an ongoing one. In this instance, Christa Campbell and Lati Grobman, the producers behind 2013’s Texas Chainsaw 3D, acquired the rights to Day of the Dead five years ago, presumably from someone involved in the making of the 2008 remake. Christa Campbell acted in that movie, by the way – just thought that was worth mentioning. Did she learn anything from being involved in it? Did she have lingering regrets and think to herself, “I know it could work, if only I was the one in charge”? I hope so because, 10 years later, she got to be. And, well, I haven’t seen the 2008 remake, but it probably wasn’t much worse that this.
Day of the Dead: Bloodline opens with a woman (Outlander‘s Sophie Skelton) frantically fleeing down a street overrun with zombies, which we will come to learn are called “rotters” now. The rotters are killing people and, amusingly, when they bite and rip into them, blood just explodes out, like viscera was being shot out of a confetti cannon. The woman gets a call from her mom, and they both reassure each other they are OK. Which is weird, because the mom never gets mentioned again. Anyway, the movie then cuts to…
FOUR HOURS EARLIER. What. The. Fuck. This whole sequence is just a few minutes long, it’s not even until the end of it that we get a title card. I know you’re supposed to hook the audience in the first 10 pages, but seemingly somebody took page 10, moved it to the front, then left pages one-nine unchanged. Truly a baffling move, the whole sequence would have worked better if presented linearly. This wold be like if 28 Weeks Later opened with Robert Carlyle running from zombies, then cut back to him and his wife hiding together moments earlier. Or like showing me look disgusted in myself, then cutting back to 15 minutes ago when I was in the Jack in the Box drive thru.
So, four hours earlier, we learn that the woman is named Zoe and she’s a med student who does a bad job identifying that a corpse in the morgue at her med school died of the flu. After that, her professor pressures her into taking a blood donation from a creepy guy who’s stalking Zoe because it will… be good for Zoe’s career? The creepy guy, Max (Johnathon Schaech, TV’s Jonah Hex), has, like, a lot of antibodies in his blood, so that’s good. He also has recently carved the name Zoe in his bicep, so that’s no so good, and when Zoe sees that she removes herself from that situation and into a high school dance-style kegger that’s happening, again, at a med school.
Zoe’s friends give her the expected “you need to learn to enjoy yourself” bullshit before sending her back to the morgue to grab another keg. I don’t have a problem with this, I imagine a morgue is a cold place and people always get sent back to morgues alone in horror movies. When she gets there, Zoe is attacked by Max, who pushes her down, rips her shirt, and sticks his hand in her pants. Just then, the corpse from earlier football tackles Max and takes a big bite out of his shoulder. Yay rotters! Zoe escapes and tries to warn her friends, but then a shitload of rotters burst into the party and start killing everyone. Boo rotters! Only Zoe can get away – she climbs out a window – and now we’re caught up.
Five years later. Yeah, that’s the other weird thing about the dumb in medias res opening: they don’t have any more to show after that first scene. So instead they cut ahead a long time and let Zoe do a voiceover. She explains that she and other refugees live with soldiers in the High Rock Emergency Bunker (is “High Rock” what dumb people call mountains?) and that they aren’t in contact with other survivors anymore. She is desperately working on a cure for the rotters and spends the rest of her time serving as the base’s doctor. On this particular day, she has concluded that a little girl has pneumonia and petitioners the man in charge, Lieutenant Miguel Salazar (Jeff Gum), to send her and a group back to her med school to get medicine before the disease can spread. He doesn’t like it, but acquiesces.
So a group heads out on a supply run in a couple of humvees. I only mention this because cars are infinitely more boring than the helicopters of Romero’s films, but certainly much more affordable from a production standpoint. One breaks down but they fix it before anything can happen and there’s not really a time element here so the whole thing is really just a waste of MY time. While they’re in the hospital, Zoe sneaks off from the group for no reason and ends up getting attacked by a zombified Max. She escapes him and finds the rest of the group, who must now deal with a rotter horde who were attracted by Zoe’s gunfire. One guy dies as they get out of there and somehow in the confusion Max is able to hide under one of the cars and hold on for the entire trip – allowing him to get behind the compound’s protective fence.
Max begins his stealth mission at the base. He hides in the bushes, ducks behind vehicles, and crawls through vents as he explores the bunker looking for Zoe, quietly dispatching those who get in his way. It’s very much like if Solid Snake also bit people. Zoe, meanwhile, is having a hard time because everyone (correctly) blames her for the guy getting killed on their supply run. That’s when Max gets the drop on her, and once again Zoe is able to run away and get help. But she also realizes Max must actually recognize her, meaning he’s still somewhat human, so she convinces Miguel to keep Max around so she can use him to make a vaccine. Again, he doesn’t like it, but acquiesces and gives her 48 hours, which seems really fast for the development of a vaccine.
Nonetheless, Zoe actually appears to be making progress, she just needs rotter blood to test. So she goes to her boyfriend, Baca (Marcus Vanco), who is also Miguel’s brother, for help. They go to the fence and try to let a single rotter in, but end up letting in a bunch of them. People get killed as the humans are forced to retreat and close the doors to the bunker. Zoe’s friend who’s name I can’t remember get bit, and Miguel decides to shoot her. Zoe begs for him to wait, since she’s almost got the vaccine, but Miguel says it’s too late. Which brings up a good point: do zombies work different here than in the other movies in the series? Because in the Romero films I’ve seen, bites don’t turn you, they kill you, and everyone who dies (regardless of cause) becomes a zombie. So, like, would this vaccine even do anything, really?
At this point, Baca’s throwing a tantrum because he’s jealous of Max’s “Zoe” tattoo until Zoe explains that Max had tried to rape her and he was not her ex boyfriend. Baca, ya basic. Max manages to steal the keys to his handcuffs and gets loose in the base. He saves the sick little girl from the zombified version of her mom (Max had killed her earlier during his espionage level) by snapping the mom’s neck, which isn’t even how zombies work IN THIS MOVIE. Max then threatens the little girl when he finds Zoe, and Zoe counters by threatening to shoot herself in the head. Max reveals he can talk by yelling at her “you are mine,” so Zoe… puts down the gun? Max then tries to rape Zoe again, but Baca fights him off, causing Max to run away and open the doors to the bunker.
Max runs out through the waiting horde and for some reason the little girl follows him. Zoe pursues her and Max. Baca and the rest of the soldiers kill all the rotters, but most of them die too. In the end, just Miguel and Baca are left. None of this is interesting, people just get tackled and there’s a bit of gore and then the camera cuts away. Nobody gets ripped in half or has any sort of memorable death, although also since I didn’t hate anyone I’m not sure who deserved one. Baca says he wants to go after Zoe, Miguel says he’s crazy, which seems fair. Then rotters jump out of nowhere and kill Miguel. Baca resolves to go after Zoe anyway. Then rotters jump out of nowhere and injure him.
Now Max is looking for the little girl and Zoe in a nearby greenhouse, having apparently abandoned his escape plan from earlier when he realized the people he was after followed him inexplicably. Both the little girl and Zoe manage to hide in enormous piles of mud and when Max walks by Zoe, she emerges, disembowels, and then decapitates him. I guess Max was the last rotter in the area, because they return unimpeded, just in time to stop Baca, who was slowly raising a gun to his own head. Zoe uses Max’s blood to develop a vaccine and save Baca’s life, and then in voiceover explains that there’s still some beauty in this world.
This Horrorble feature started as a way for me to write about the terrible Transformer sequels, and I see a lot of the same problems those movies have in Day of the Dead: Bloodline. Too many characters, too much plot, too much concern with keeping he movie busy, too much thoughtlessly trying to do things that worked in other movies. They say you learn more from failures than you do successes, and seeing something this thoughtless really did inspire a new appreciation for the 1985 original in me.
Think of all the little touches in the original that stand out. So much thought was put into showing what life was like for the survivors: I think of Dr. Frankenstein’s bizarre experiments, from the ghoulish state of the corpses he worked on all the way to his test of giving Bub a Walkman. I think of the routines of the soldiers, the different homes of each of the survivors within that bunker, the complicated relationship between everyone. Who knows what sort of limitations that production had when it came to budgets, sets, or actors? The answer is irrelevant, because the ideas in it are so fully realized.
It seems the only new idea this remake tried to bring to the table was a sense of post-Weinstein relevancy. Max the zombie is also a man who feels entitled to the woman he’s attracted to. Zoe is a survivor of sexual assault who is haunted by that, even as the apocalypse is happening around her. But the movie doesn’t really have any sort of perspective on the subject, nor does it provide a satisfying comeuppance. Creepy white dudes who try commit rape are bad and it sucks that women have to deal with that. Yeah, OK, I guess we’ve made some progress since Biff from Back to the Future.
The first Day of the Dead showed how much people suck by having every aspect of a tiny society fail due to mistrust, misunderstanding, and ill intentions. It used a handful of compelling heroes, some easy-to-hate villains, a few eerie perspectives of a hopeless world, and buckets of gore to make one of the landmark films in its genre. Day of the Dead: Bloodline bungles a #metoo tweet’s worth of insight into 90 minutes of familiar, boring cliches. It should never have been made.