-Review by Paul Ewbank-
People stuck in a place defending it from lots of nasties is about as basic an idea as they come, but it’s been used an awful lot in a whole range of genres, especially zombie movies and the like. And there’s a good reason- it works really well as the climax to a film. Get all your principle characters to point A and have them desperately try to hold out for X amount of time against seemingly endless hordes of ravenous drooling Z. You can see it everywhere from Lord of the Rings to Saving Private Ryan to Shaun of the Dead; defending is a lot more tense than attacking.
This is a concept that the 2011 low-budget horror film The Day has obviously cottoned on to. By five minutes in our 5 protagonists have arrived at point A, an isolated cottage, and by act 2 the hordes of ravenous Z, cannibals in this case, are closing in with a big case of the munchies. And as far as story goes, that’s pretty much it. The Day isn’t cluttered with add-ons or superfluous plot points. What it does have is lots of violence, a couple of clever ideas, and an incredibly dark atmosphere, even by end-of-the world standards.
(fairly big plot spoiler in the next paragraph)
So a few years back the world went all post-apocalyptic for unspecified reasons and now a band of five survivors lead by Meriadoc Brandybuck, also known as Dominic Monaghan, also known as… I wanna say Rick, are trudging across the abandoned countryside looking for food, shelter and refuge from bands of roaming cannibals. They take shelter in an abandoned cottage on a hilltop, and well, that plays out about as well as you’d expect. Turns out the cottage was booby trapped and Rick gets himself impaled on a large wooden spike twenty minutes in. If you were wondering why Monaghan’s name was so far down the credits roster at the beginning despite him apparently being the main character, that’s why. Still, I really didn’t see it coming, and there were a few more twists that really threw me. Group dynamics are explored quite interestingly as the mob of flesh eaters encircle the four survivors, one of whom may or may not be a cannibal herself, and they try to form a plan without their old leader to call the shots and descend into bickering and suspicion. They decide to fortify the cottage and make a stand, and so pretty much the entire second half of the film is them taking down waves of guys with improvised sharp things and precious few bullets.
The main comment I have about The Day is that it’s nasty. Not just in the levels of violence, which are far in excess of my threshold to watch comfortably, but in its very idea and entire execution. The cannibal thing is a good example- zombies eat people, sure, but it’s somehow a lot, lot more unpleasant when the enemies are normal people who know how horrible what they’re doing is, but still relish the fun of it. It makes a grim kind of sense, too; the film is set years after the end of the world and food is incredibly scarce. Apparently whatever killed off most of humanity also killed all our natural food sources too. Our heroes make do scavenging old tins, catching the odd rabbit and carrying round a jar full of seeds in the hope of one day settling down to grow things. The feral tribe they run afoul of take things to their nastiest conclusion and eat other humans to survive. A lot of post-apocalypse films portray a dog-eat-dog mentality, but it’s rarely been done so literally.
This overarchingly pessimistic view of humanity’s survival prospects in the end times is mirrored in the drained, almost black and white colour scheme of the film and by the relentlessly morose tone of the dialogue. When the cannibal pack first finds the heroes trapped in the house, their horribly unnerving leader’s first line to them is “Hello, meat.”, and this kind of blunt brutality is typical of the rest of the film. There’s not a shred of comic relief or distraction to be found; The Day is a bleak, hopeless portrayal of survival and I can’t really say I enjoyed it too much. Even the hope-symbolising jar of seeds seems like an impossibility. How can things get better when they’ve gotten this bad? And if its the only way to survive, who’s to say the cannibals are even wrong? A bleak outlook isn’t necessarily the sign of an un-enjoyable film, and I will concede that The Day is well made, tense and appropriately frightening, but I still won’t ever rank a film telling me that humans are doomed to wander the earth in fear of being torn to pieces and eaten by other humans as high on my ‘to watch again’ list.