To paraphrase the prophet Coolio: ain’t no franchise like a horror movie franchise, ’cause a horror movie franchise don’t stop. From its earliest days, monster flicks have been as much about repetition as their requisite thrills and chills, and fans like me can’t get enough. Why, from my meager writing perch alone, I can see copies of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, the much-maligned Halloween III, and more entries in Full Moon Studios’ schlocky Subspecies series than I am comfortable admitting in public. Recently added to this collection are Day of the Dead: Bloodline and Hellraiser: Judgment, two contemporary takes on big-name horror properties. Read on to see how they stack up.
Quality vs. Dubious Quality
The quality spectrum for the diehard horror movie fan does not merely limit itself to “good” and “bad.” Good movies can be simply good or conditionally good. (“You’ll really enjoy The Invitation if you’re into psychological thrillers.” “Train to Busan is amazing… if you can keep up with the subtitles.”)
Perhaps more importantly, bad movies can be good-bad, often termed so-bad-it’s-good, or just regular bad-bad. This is the primary reason that b-grade and micro-budget monster and slasher movies continue to find an audience, even in this digital era’s buffet of entertainment options.
The Land of Missed Opportunities – Day of the Dead: Bloodline
Depending on the direction of the prevailing cultural winds, George Romero’s 1985 Day of the Dead is anything from a good-bad movie to an unmitigated zombie classic, yet even those who find it the least enjoyable of the original Night of the Living Dead trilogy tend to agree on one thing: it’s all about Bub the zombie.
Earlier this year, the release of Day of the Dead: Bloodline promised to put a more contemporary spin on this military-horror standout: a brand new story (and a brand new “Bub”) for a new generation. Unfortunately, while it aims for greatness, it falls short of good and even good-bad, landing firmly in confines of movie mediocrity.
The premise is essentially the same, a small group of surviving soldiers and scientists eke out a meager existence in a world overrun by the living dead—“rotters” in their parlance—but that’s where the similarities end. In place of the original’s Dr. Logan/Captain Rhodes conflict, we have British actress Sophie Skelton as surviving medical student Zoe Parker, anxiously fighting the limits of both her interrupted education and tank-top-heavy wardrobe to discover a cure for the zombie virus, and one-note military caricature Miguel Salazar, played by Jeff Gum, as the base’s commander.
The film opens with Zoe frantically running through gore-strewn streets before flashing back a mere handful of hours earlier to show how the zombie apocalypse began in earnest. Creepy medical anomaly Max—played by Johnathon Schaech, who is, I’ll add, literally twice Sophie Skelton’s age—continually makes unwelcome advances towards Zoe, who always seems to get stuck drawing his immuno-heightened blood samples. On the night in question, during a med student kegger (Of course!), Max stealthily returns and attempts to sexually assault an isolated Ms. Parker, only to be fended off by a newly-resurrected cadaver.
The film then, inexplicably, time shifts again, six months into the future. On a supply run—which, thanks to The Walking Dead, we now know is the bread-and-butter of any contemporary zombie tale—Zoe encounters a zombified but still obsessed Max, who then sneaks into the base by… hiding underneath one of the military Jeeps. Seriously.
After wreaking a little undead havoc, creeping around in the facility’s impressively-sized ductwork, and becoming predictably jealous of her new lover Baca Salazar (brother of Miguel), Max again targets Zoe directly, only to be captured and taken away for testing. His crazy blood, you see, has kept him from completely zombifying, so Zoe plans to use it to create a cure or, at the very least, a rotter inoculation.
In short order, Max escapes and a chase ensues, complicated by the fact that ol’ tall, dark, and gruesome also let in his cannibalistic kinfolk to munch on the military men and women. Obviously. In the end,—if you even care at this point.
In a post-Weinstein, #metoo movement world, you’d be forgiven if you thought Day of the Dead: Bloodline was trying to be cleverly topical. What does it say that the key to mankind’s future may come from a sexual predator? Why is Zoe initially blamed for not rebuking Max’s advances more strongly, even after we see her stand her ground? How the hell does Miguel make the assumption that Max was Zoe’s pre-apocalypse boyfriend after discovering her name crudely carved into his arm? (Is that normal, acceptable behavior in the film’s world?!)
The truth is, though, that the movie doesn’t seem to make any real statement at all, and that’s okay on its own. Not everything needs to be about something, but Bloodline makes so many missteps along the way that you have to wonder if anyone ever gave the script a second thought.
Despite its promise, the writing is slow and derivative, the acting wooden, and even the direction uninspired. The practical effects are solid—and, man, do these zombies love to eat still-attached human legs—but even that suffers when you notice rotters shambling along with fresh intestines draped around their necks like Flava Flav. Not to mention the fact that there’s more gratuitous CGI blood spray than you’d seen in an entire season of Supernatural cold opens.
Searching for some kind of substance, I eventually plumbed the Blu-ray’s special featurette, Day of the Dead: Bloodline – “Reviving Horror,” but that did nothing to increase my enjoyment. In fact, Schaech’s insistence that Max is some sort of poor, misunderstood character only served to make me wonder if he even read the script himself. A bully in life and in death, Max is no Bubs, and, if anything, he erodes some of the goodwill the fan community had for that original character.
Everything Bloodline does, some other modern horror release has done better. Despite his many (many, many) recent failings, Zack Snyder’s 2004 Dawn of the Dead is an infinitely more enjoyable remake. The “extra-special zombie” trope is more expertly executed in 2016’s The Girl With All the Gifts.” Hell, the minimalist indie It Stains the Sands Red even gives you a better zombie-eats-rapist setup.
Available now on Blu-ray and Digital for $14.99 (via Amazon), this one is a hard recommendation. If you’re both a zombie enthusiast and an unabashed completionist, it’ll fit in nicely alongside all your other Romero retreads. For everyone else, though, this one is a one-night Redbox excursion after you’ve already tapped your local machine of its finer fare.
Back From Hell (And None the Worse for Wear) – Hellraiser: Judgment
Since its 1987 debut, Clive Barker’s Hellraiser series has been all about the “Five Bs”:
- Bondage Gear
- (Puzzle) Boxes
Accordingly, the franchise has always been geared more toward the good-bad spectrum for horror aficionados—not because of any principle defect, mind you, so much as it’s dedicated more-is-more approach to gore and graphic content. In that regard, Hellraiser: Judgment stays the course. But this isn’t just another lazy cash-in.
Pinhead, leader of the Cenobites, receives both a new makeover (with longer pins and gorier lacerations) and a much more subdued characterization from new actor Paul T. Taylor. Gone are the dry one-liners, which sought to give the Pinhead of old a little of that Freddy Krueger magic, in favor of more direct, aloof sadomasochistic Hell Priest.
Even as the film opens, we have Pinhead and the Auditor—he’s sort of a Satanic CPA—discussing how modern technology has infiltrated their distinctly old-school industry, that being the harvesting of souls for eternal torment. Rather than simply waiting for another bored hedonist to mistakenly solve the Lament Configuration puzzle and open a doorway to hell, the duo instead set up earthly shop at 55 Ludovico Place and send out typewritten invites to local perverts and degenerates.
Their first subject, a child predator, is taken through the now streamlined process; tell your deeds to the Auditor, who types them up so that the slovenly, shirtless Assessor can eat them and puke the page slurry into the chamber of the three-woman Jury. Also topless, these mutilated-faced madams poke around in the spew and decide your fate (which is almost always guilty). Then you’re taken to be stripped and cleaned by another, larger trio of half-naked women, skinned and mutilated by the Butcher and the Surgeon, and then, just for kicks, your blood is sprayed onto the naked bosoms of the aforementioned Jurors.
Yeah, this one really isn’t for the kiddies or those with weak constitutions.
This entire affair also has painfully little to do with the actual plot of the film, which concerns detective brothers Sean and David Carter, their new partner Christine Egerton, and the search for a 10 Commandments-themed serial killer called “The Preceptor.” Along the way, Sean gets a little too close to Pinhead’s new digs—leading to a replay of the preceding judgment process—only to be sprung at the last minute by angelic agent Jophiel and escape with one of those pesky puzzle boxes.
This ultimately leads to the undoing of, well, pretty much every principle character, including the triumphant return of those demonic hook-chains that come out of nowhere to tear apart victims, Pinhead sharing his handsome new cranial accessories with the less fortunate, and even an unpleasant little surprise for the big bad himself.
In that way, Judgment keeps thing close enough to series canon (and possibly even closer to Barker’s original vision than the previous films) while also offering some legitimate twists along the way. If you’re an old Hellraiser fan who’s become bored with the parade of cookie-cutter sequels and unsatisfying cash-ins, Hellraiser: Judgment could legitimately lead you back. For everyone else, it’s at least worth a rental if you’re in the mood for a little horror magic on a cold, cold night.
At $17.99 (again, via Amazon) for the Blu-ray + Digital combo, it’s a solid pick-up for the price and, by far, the superior of these two re-imaginings. Just don’t get your hopes up to see all your favorite Cenobites in its slim 81-minute runtime. (Though the Stitch Twins and Chatterer do manage a cameo during the elder Carter’s highly hallucinatory audit.) Oh, and while the included deleted scenes don’t add much to the narrative, the gag reel is a must-see—because there are few things more endearing than tongue-tied agents for the underworld.
Review materials provided by: Lionsgate