"Day of the Dead 2: Contagium is a bloody feast of gore and
horror guaranteed to satisfy even the most hardened horror fans."
From the Day of the Dead 2: Contagium publicity blurb
Oh do you bloody think so?
Horror fans worldwide will approach any film titled Day of the Dead 2 with some trepidation, knowing full well that George A. Romero, the Horror God responsible for the original Day of the Dead – itself the third entry in his Living Dead trilogy (now quadrilogy) – had absolutely nothing to do with it. Now this does not necessarily spell disaster. Romero may have started the modern zombie movie cycle but it's not exclusively his property, and some of the offshoots of his Living Dead films have found favour with horror fans – Dan O'Bannon's 1985 Return of the Living Dead (precariously connected to Romero via co-screenwriter Rudy Ricci's work on There's Always Vanilla) has found a place in many horror hearts, and the prolific Lucio Fulci built his international fandom in part on the back of Italian Zombie films that have a cult following of their own. So why not a low budget American offshoot of the series made by young industry hopefuls? It makes a kind of sense – Romero himself launched his career with what remains the greatest of all zombie movies, Night of the Living Dead, made on a budget that nowadays would probably not pay for the rental on an actor's trailer.
Which is fair enough, but when your title directly links your film to one of Romero's works, you're treading on thin generic ice. Pre-release publicity suggests it is both a prequel and a sequel to Romero's film, but this is largely nonsense. Day of the Dead 2: Contagium borrows themes and ideas from Romero and goes its own way with them. Here the action is largely confined to a mental hospital, in which a small group of patients stumble across a vaccuum flask left over from the days when the building was owned by the military. When the flask is opened, all of those present begin mutating into zombie-like creatures with a taste for human flesh.
So given the divorce from Romero's original, how does Contagium stand up as zombie horror on its own terms? Before I follow up on my brief but heartfelt opening line, I feel obliged to point out that there are some nice ideas nestled in Contagium's narrative bowels. The concept of focussing on the experience of transformation from human to zombie is a good one, and the alien infestation overtones hark back to pre-Romero works such as Edward L Cahn's Invisible Invaders and even Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space. There are also a fair number of familiar Romero touchstones, from the opening military invasion and massacre to the isolated and contained location. There are also plenty of borrowings from other sources, including the infected patients' ability to communicate telepathically in the manner of Cronenberg's Scanners, the Resident Evil-like retreat from the advancing zombies with only a handgun for protection, the Scream-like movie referencing used as a fate prediction, and a nod to Peter Jackson's Braindead with some would-be comical vomit eating. There are even overtones of governmental conspiracy, topically suggesting Homeland Security as the CIA-like boogiemen of the new Millennium.
All of which makes Contagium sound an intriguing take on familiar themes, but before you get too excited there are a few things you need to know. First up, the rest of the plot development is predictable beyond belief. Kicking off with a military assault on a hospital overrun with zombies, we then leap forward several years (confusingly pre-captioned as 'five days ago') to the discovery of the infection-filled thermos, and even the slowest of viewers will need only seconds to lay out most of the subsequent plot turns. Woefully one-dimensional characters do not help, with the kind doctor, the nasty attendant, the nerdy, bitchy and fixated patents, and the almost comically evil Administrator (complete with shaved head, steel-rimmed glasses and German accent) all following expected paths of generic pre-destiny, but never in an entertaining way, in part because the dialogue is so banal and the performances so uninspiring. In an increasingly common example of white male film-maker fantasy, the doc is developing a relationship with the pretty, light-skinned black nurse, at the same time playing cupid to the two patients with whom we are supposed to emotionally bond but who we ultimately couldn't care a hoot for, especially when girlie gets pregnant with a zombie child, a plot twist that proves to be all build-up and, literally, no delivery.
But given that the film is trading on its gore effects, what surprises most is how shabby most of them look. Gunshot wounds are staged using the age-old favourite of firing a blob of red goo at the victim from just off camera, which wouldn't matter so much if it wasn't so obvious that this was how it was being done. Peeling skin is created using dried-on PVA glue that is pulled off to reveal pristine flesh beneath, arm biting is suggested by blood running from the mouth of the attacker rather than any actual damage, and most gunshots appear to have been faked just by jerking the rifle or pistol and adding a sound effect. There are a few body parts and intestines on display, but it all looks rather cheap and second-hand, save for one shot that actually made me laugh out loud when a collection of zombie patients are seen snacking on body parts while sitting at tables in the hospital canteen. Curiously, some of the more violent moments occur just off-screen or are cut away from, not the only hint here of a censorial hand at work.
Sometimes the low rent ambitions of the film-makers show to such a degree you can't help wondering if they are taking the piss. After witnessing five solid minutes of soldiers shooting everything that moves, to have a character overhear a radio transmission to the very same soldiers shouting "All units, shoot to kill!" should have the entire audience going "well, duh!" and the DoP's inability to clearly photograph VDU displays has the good doc reading out every single word of his email as he types so that we know what he is writing.
Towards the end everything really falls apart, as four of the transformed retain the moral high ground by fighting the urge to eat human flesh, a mass break-out of zombies comes across as a small skirmish and looks like it was filmed outside the directors' mum's house, and the end credits appear out of nowhere with no sense of narrative conclusion.
It's pretty bad news, even for us 'hardened horror fans', reflected in its shockingly low rating on the IMDB and some of the most hostile comments I've read about a film for some time. Zombie completists (you know who you are) will want to take a peek anyway, and some may well find that there is enough here to warrant the effort, but for most of us this is another sad reminder of a sub-genre whose time has effectively passed, and of a once vibrant American independent horror industry that has now fallen on derivative and unimaginative times.
|sound and vision|
Framed 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced, this is a decent enough transfer without exactly jumping out of the screen. Colour, sharpness and contrast are solid enough, and given the obviously low budget this is a very reasonable job. There are some instances of compression artefacts in areas of single colour and low light, but they are not that distracting.
The Dolby 2.0 stereo soundtrack has OK speration but on the whole just does the job without fuss.
The press sheet promises that the special features will include a behind-the-scenes featurette (and note the word 'include'), but on the supplied review disk there isn't a thing, the main menu offering the choice of playing the film or bouncing through the (12) chapter stops. A shame really – I was just itching to know how they did those amazing special effects...
We all make certain allowances for low budget film-making, but Day of the Dead: Contagium cost an estimated $9,000,000, and even allowing for the inflationary passing of time, just look what George Romero did with just $114,000 back in 1968. Like so many first year student film-makers, the creators of Contagium seem to be working under the mistaken belief that horror is about killing and blood and that story and character do not matter, which would not be so bad if the killing and blood were even a teeny bit convincing.
That the film arrives on a bare bones disk seems only appropriate – everything you need to know about how it was made is right up there on the screen.