For many horror fans, the zombie subgenre has become an “over it” proposition: simply put, this once dangerous and fan-beloved style of horror film has reached simultaneous levels of mainstream popularity and market over-saturation for the people who already know it well. As the ever more opportunistic films pile up, the plots are getting more overtly familiar and the shock and horror elements are getting toned down to appeal to a mass audience. It seems inevitable that before the zombie film reaches the apathetic low of its current cycle, we’ll be seeing Twilight-style “horror lite” romances about romance between the living and the undead.
However, before that self-satirical point is reached, zombie fans will have to wade through a few more mountains of throwaway, trend-chasing material. Remains is a fairly recent example of the form, a made for cable t.v. movie that mostly trades inspiration for a numbing familiarity. It does have a certain amount of pedigree: it is based upon a limited series comic by Steve Niles, a popular comics author and novelist who also penned 30 Days Of Night. However, name recognition does not necessary equal high quality – and Remains is a depressingly run-of-the-mill zombie opus.
Remains takes place primarily in a low-rent casino and hotel in Reno, Nevada. The people who work there are going about their day when an attempt to neutralize the world’s nuclear stockpile goes awry, exposing anyone outdoors to a blast of radiation that transforms them into mindless, hungry zombies. The only survivors are the ones who were in doors: this includes hard-drinking bartender Tom (Grant Bowler), cynical sexpot waitress Toni (Evalena Marie) and nice-guy magician’s assistant Jensen (Miko Hughes).
Thus begins an episodic blend of zombie skirmishes and chance encounters as the survivors try to keep it together and find a way out of this predicament. There’s also the occasional attempt at a dramatic beat where the characters utter vague musings about whether or not surviving is worthwhile. To add a little conflict into the second half, a band of soldiers is introduced that includes tough guy leader Ramsey (Lance Reddick) and his attractive daughter Cindy (Tawny Cypress).
If any of the above plot elements sound familiar, that’s because they are: the plot liberally lifts familiar conceits from Dawn Of The Dead, Day Of The Dead and even Night Of The Comet. In fairness, it does introduce a few interesting conceits: the best is that this film’s zombies have a period where they fall asleep while standing during the night, leading to a few creepy scenes where characters have to gingerly walk through a corridor full of “sleeping” zombies. However, concepts like that are introduced sparingly and the plotting tends to be arid, relying on a lot of chatter between characters to fill the gaps in the rather slow-moving plot.
The thin plot could be forgiven if the characters were an interesting bunch but John Doolan’s script is full of characters that are either dull, annoying or both, particularly its two main protagonists. Toni is obviously intended to be a tough chick but she frequently comes off as mean-spirited and nihilistic. Tom is clearly meant to be a flawed hero but all that means is that he makes a lot of dumb choices during moments of would-be escape. There’s a fine line between making your heroes realistic by giving them moments where they are believably unsympathetic or vulnerable and simply making them hard to like. Remains errs on the side of making them unlikeable. This is doubly a shame because the few potentially interesting characters like Jensen or Cindy are either left on the story’s periphery or given clichéd development.
The actors try hard with this material: the cast here mainly consists of performers who frequently appear on episodic t.v. and they bring a basic professionalism to their work that ensures the acting never slips to embarassing. Miko Hughes fares the best: unlike most of his fellow cast members, he underplays his role in a way that makes him the most believable member of the crew and manages to come off as quite likeable despite a limited amount of screen time.
Finally, Remains is impaired by a mixture of its low budget and a lack of imagination in the mise-en-scene. Remain’s basic-cable production values hurt its attempt to establish a sense of scope: for instance, the casino/hotel looks a hastily redressed Days Inn. This could be worked around if director Colin Theys had a unique visual approach but his work tends towards the humdrum (for instance, every zombie attack is shot with a shaky handheld camera). Thankfully, he mostly avoids the strident goofball humor that marred his previous film Alien Opponent here but he tends to film things in a flat-looking, t.v. safe way that reduces their kinetic impact and suspense (two things a zombie movie definitely needs).
In short, Remains is neither the best nor the worst of the modern zombie movie vogue. However, it is too generic in approach and way too full of familiar material to rank as anything memorable. Even zombie-flick obsessives will find this one a bit tiring to get through.