“Every day has a beginning.”
“D-day Is Coming.”
“This spring, the dead will rise!”
These are the taglines for two remakes of George Romero’s classic 1985 zombie film, Day of the Dead. The first tagline belongs to Day of the Dead 2: Contagium, which was released in 2005. The second and third ones are from Day of the Dead (2008). These taglines sound pretty lame, and so are the actual movies. Both remakes were widely panned by critics as deeply flawed films that were barely relatable to the original movie.
And now in 2018, another remake has surfaced in the land of the living, Day of the Dead: Bloodline. How does it fare against the original 1985 film? After comparing the setting, storyline, and social commentary of both films, I would say not very well.
Setting and Storyline
The setting and storyline of the original 1985 film are more eerie and thought-provoking than those of the remake.
Day of the Dead (1985)
In George Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985), a small group of people living in Florida survive a large-scale zombie outbreak. The survivors include a team of scientists named Sarah (played by Lori Cardille), Dr. Logan (played by Richard Liberty), and Ted Fisher (played by John Amplas) as well as a team of military personnel led by tyrannical leader Captain Rhodes (played by Joe Pilato). There are also two civilian workers, a helicopter pilot named John (played by Terry Alexander) and an electronics expert named McDermott (played by Jarlath Conroy).
The original Day of the Dead has much to offer viewers. The setting and the storyline work together to create a psychologically tense environment. Above ground, there are literally hundreds of zombies waiting to eat the survivors alive. Below ground, the main characters find refuge but little comfort inside a military bunker that John describes as a “great, big, 14-mile tombstone.” With dwindling resources, people, and time to figure out a way to deal with the zombies, the main characters are alive but psychologically entombed in a state of constant stress and fear for their lives.
The zombies aren’t the only monsters the main characters face. Inside of the tenuous safety of the bunker, the main characters are also threatened by the monstrous behavior of some of their own colleagues. The claustrophobic underground bunker is the perfect setting for Romero to demonstrate that extreme circumstances bring out extreme human behavior.
The most obvious example of this is the slow mental meltdown of a military soldier named Miguel (played by Antoné DiLeo). His mental state worsens after Sarah amputates one of his arms to prevent him from turning into a zombie. Miguel’s madness reaches its zenith when he decides to give the rest of his body to the zombies in a suicidal act that endangers the lives of everyone else in the bunker.
And then there is Captain Rhodes, who terrorizes the people living in the bunker. At times, he is more dangerous to them than the zombies. He threatens to execute anyone who challenges his authority. When Sarah tries to leave a meeting without his permission, he orders one of his men named Steel (played by Howard Klar) to shoot Sarah if she does not return to her seat. What makes this scene even more alarming is that Rhodes threatens to shoot Steel if Steel does not shoot Sarah. Rhodes actually executes someone else later in the film but for a different reason and without much deliberation.
His extreme hypocrisy is almost as frightening as his brutality. While his men are loyal to him, he is not loyal to them. After the bunker is overrun by zombies, Rhodes abandons them and even locks them out of some of the rooms in the bunker in order to save himself.
Day of the Dead: Bloodline (2018)
Day of the Dead: Bloodline incorporates some of the elements of the original 1985 film but goes off in a dramatically different direction. The remake has a less isolated and claustrophobic atmosphere than the original film. There is a military camp with an underground bunker, but there are more people living there, including families with children. Although the camp residents are also surrounded by zombies, they stay above ground more regularly than the people living in the bunker in the original film. With the exception of a few moments of conflict, there is more cooperation between the camp residents, so there is less psychological tension. The camp is run by a strict leader named Miguel (played by Jeff Gum), but he is nowhere near as ruthless as Captain Rhodes was in the original film. His authority is somewhat kept in check by his brother Baca (played by Marcus Vanco), who is second in command.
I think director Hèctor Hernández Vicens made the setting and some aspects of the storyline less frightening because he wanted a bizarre “good vs. evil” struggle to serve as the main source of horror in the film. The real villain of the remake is a character named Max (played by Johnathon Shaech). Before the zombie outbreak, Max was a test subject at Whittendale University Medical Center. The researchers at the hospital were studying his blood because it contains some unusual antibodies. A medical student named Zoe (played by Sophie Skelton) had to collect blood samples from him every week, and Max became obsessed with her to the point that he attempted to rape her in the hospital morgue. She is able to escape from him after a zombie corpse attacks Max.
A few years later, he comes back into her life when she returns to Whittendale University Medical Center as a doctor on a supply run. He manages to hitch a ride to the military camp Zoe moved to after the zombie outbreak occurred and pursues her there. Once Max arrives at the camp, the plot of the movie becomes predictable right down to the inevitable Zoe vs. Max showdown toward the end of the movie.
I think the Zoe vs. Max storyline is awful. It turned this remake into a psycho stalker movie in zombie drag.
I had a hard time believing that one of Max’s newfound powers as a zombie-human hybrid is the ability to track down Zoe simply by sniffing a wristband that she lost during her supply run at the medical center. Did he secretly get genetically crossed with a bloodhound somewhere along the way?
And when I saw him licking Zoe on the face, I could not help thinking how far removed this remake is from the more meaningful and truly terrifying work of George Romero.
After watching a few Romero zombie films, I have come to expect that he skillfully interweaves social commentary in with the horror. The original 1985 film does not disappoint in this regard, but the remake does.
Day of the Dead (1985)
Through the character of Dr. Logan, Romero mocks the short-sighted and impractical nature of some scientific research. We may laugh when Sarah tells Dr. Logan that it would take “15 hours of fancy surgery that only a handful of people are trained to do” to control a zombie the way Dr. Logan is able to control a body in his lab.
We may also laugh when Dr. Logan’s “practical” solution to the zombie outbreak is to train the zombies to behave “properly” through social conditioning and a reward system, especially because the only zombie who has responded to his conditioning program is a zombie named Bub (played by Howard Sherman).
But is Romero merely exaggerating for comic effect? After I came across some weird scientific studies like “Frictional Coefficient under Banana Skin” and “Response Behaviors of Svalbard Reindeer Towards Humans and Humans Disguised as Polar Bears on Edgeøya”, I don’t think his mockery is far off from reality.
Dr. Logan as Dr. Frankenstein
Dr. Logan is more than an amusing take on the scientist stereotype. He is nicknamed Dr. Frankenstein for a good reason. He allows Romero to integrate some of the concerns about humankind’s overreaching for knowledge at any cost posed by Mary Shelley’s classic novel.
Romero’s social commentary takes a darker turn when we see that Dr. Logan is not limiting his scientific research to zombies. It is horrifying to watch Dr. Logan cross the ethical line and conduct experiments on dead people who once lived and worked in the bunker.
And it is even worse to see Dr. Logan feeding parts of them to Bub as a reward for good behavior.
On the opposite side of the scientific spectrum is John. Neither a scientist nor a soldier, he is an independent thinker who sees things differently from most of the other people in the bunker. His outlook is also somewhat different from that of his fellow “flyboy” in Dawn of the Dead (1978), Steve. John shares Steve’s determination that “we’ve got to survive,” but John does not long to go back to the old way of life before the zombie outbreak.
John has a low opinion of modern progress. From his perspective, the new world after the zombie outbreak reveals just how useless so much of the knowledge that mattered in the old world really is:
Hey, you know what all they keep down here in this cave? Man, they got the books and the records of the top 500 companies. They got the Defense Department budget down here. And they got the negatives for all your favorite movies. They got microfilm with tax return and newspaper stories. They got immigration records and census reports, and they got all of the official accounts of all the wars and plane crashes and volcano eruptions and earthquakes and fires and floods and all the other disasters that interrupted the flow of things in the good ole U.S. of A. Now what does it matter, Sarah darling? All this filing and record keeping? We ever gonna give a shit? We even gonna get a chance to see it all?
Most of all, John has no faith in science. Romero also echoes Shelley’s sentiments in one of John’s conversations with Sarah. John thinks modern-day scientists and researchers got too curious about the secrets of life and death. He seems to blame them for the zombie outbreak. Like Victor Frankenstein in Shelley’s novel, they knew enough to be dangerous but not enough to fix the damage caused by their scientific meddling:
You want to put some kind of explanation down here before you leave? Here’s one as good as any you’re likely to find. We’re bein’ punished by the Creator. He visited a curse on us. So that man could look at… what Hell was like. Maybe He didn’t want to see us blow ourselves up and put a big hole in the sky. Maybe He just wanted to show us He was still the Boss Man. Maybe He figure, we was gettin’ too big for our britches, tryin’ to figure His shit out.
John is so skeptical about the value of scientific research that he tries to persuade Sarah that her quest for knowledge as a scientist is a futile one:
. . . Now, here you come. Here you come with a whole new set of charts and graphs and records. What you gonna do? Bury them down here with all the other relics of what… once… was? Let me tell you what else. Yeah, I’m gonna tell you what else. You ain’t never gonna figure it out, just like they never figured out why the stars are where they’re at. It ain’t mankind’s job to figure that stuff out. So what you’re doing is a waste of time, Sarah. . . .
Even his “alternative” plan to “get in that old whirly-bird . . . , find us an island some place, get juiced up and spend what time we got left soakin’ up some sunshine” is similar to Victor Frankenstein’s advice to “seek happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition . . . .”
Day of the Dead: Bloodline (2018)
The new plot twist of the 2018 remake provides less opportunity for social commentary. The remake avoids the “Frankenstein” theme integrated in the original 1985 film. It opts to pay homage to the original film in a less shocking way by having Zoe search for a medical treatment that could reverse some of the negative effects of the zombie virus, which is the kind of research that Sarah wanted to do in the original film.
The remake also includes a botched attempt to explore the overused “good for the one vs. the good for the many” moral dilemma. One example of this dilemma involves a child named Lily (played by Lilian Blankenship), who develops a contagious illness that could spread to everyone else at the camp. Was Zoe’s supply run to save Lily worth the life of a soldier who went with her named Frank (played by Atanas Srebrev)?
The movie offers unsatisfactory answers to this question. Miguel thinks the supply run mission should have been aborted once they had car trouble. But would that have guaranteed that Frank would still be alive?
Frank’s wife, Elle (played by Cristina Serafini), simply blames Zoe for Frank’s death, telling her that “this is all on you” because “it was your idea to go out there.” What about Lily? Wasn’t her life worth saving?
And Baca tells her not to feel guilty about Frank’s death because “Frank knew the risks of going out there.” He also reminds her that she saved not only Lily but everyone else at the camp. Is he trying to say that it was okay that Frank died and that Lily’s life is more important than Frank’s?
After what happened on the supply run, you would think that safety would be on the forefront of Zoe’s mind. But no! To possibly save the lives of everyone at the camp with a vaccine for the zombie virus, she ironically risks their lives by keeping Max chained inside her lab without even a guard outside of the room. We are supposed to believe Zoe is doing the right thing because she now has Elle’s support for developing a vaccine that “could have saved Frank.”
And if once was not bad enough, Zoe tries to save everyone by endangering them a second time! She and Baca devise a plan to open the perimeter gate of the camp so that she can acquire some live zombie test samples for the vaccine. This time Zoe and Baca’s scheme costs the lives of several soldiers and the life of her assistant, Elyse (played by Shari Watson), who is shot by Miguel after he discovers she was bitten by a zombie.
By this point in the movie, you don’t care if the camp gets overrun by zombies after Max escapes from the lab. You don’t wonder why all the zombies mysteriously disappear and leave Zoe alone so that she can finish working on her vaccine in her lab. You just want the movie to be over.
Day of the Dead: Bloodline is an anemic spinoff of the original 1985 film. It lacks the intellectual vigor and biting terror of the original movie. In my opinion, George Romero’s Day of the Dead is a much better film than this remake. Its psychological and physical horror is still disturbing, and its questioning of the value of human knowledge and technological progress is still relevant today.