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Re-Animating Day of the Dead: An Interview with Johnathon Schaech

Day 01

By Gary M. Kramer.

Johnathon Schaech’s acting career has included such films as Gregg Araki’s cult classic The Doom Generation and Jocelyn Moorehouse’s How to Make an American Quilt. As he got bigger roles, such as Jimmy Mattingly in That Thing You Do, directed by Tom Hanks, Schaech also started taking lead roles in several sequels, such as Poison Ivy II, 8MM 2, Road House 2, which he co-wrote, and the 2008 remake of Prom Night.

In his latest sequel/franchise film, Day of the Dead: Bloodline, a remake of the George Romero classic, Schaech plays Max, a creepy blood donor who preys on Zoe (Sophie Skelton), a young doctor in training. When Zombies take over the world, Max, who is “transitioning” may have an antibody that could stop the zombies from infecting the survivors.

The actor spoke with Film International about making Day of the Dead: Bloodline, and his penchant for B-movie remakes and sequels.

What is the appeal of making a zombie film? Is this a genre you enjoy?

Richard Chizmar and I wrote for George Romero, so I had worked with him. When I got the script [for Bloodline], it appealed to me to play the monster, the creature. To get behind the prosthetics and build the character.

You have made many sequels and franchise films, even writing one of them. What can you say about your B-movie career?

That Thing You Do! (Tom Hanks, 1996)

That Thing You Do! (Tom Hanks, 1996)

I just saw Camilla Belle. I did a film with her 20-plus years ago and she was a kid in it. It was called Lily, but they re-titled it Poison Ivy 2. When I made Road House, It was supposed to be a remake, but they made it a sequel. 8MM 2 had nothing to do with the original film. It was renamed that so they can sell it. Knowing that Day of the Dead: Bloodline was produced by Christa Campbell, who made Day of the Dead (2008), I thought it would be great to continue the Romero ideal. Then it was the follow through of how to build a creature like Gary Oldman does in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, or Dash Mihok does in I Am Legend.

You bulked up a bit for this role, I understand. Can you talk about how you use your body? There is a real physicality to Max, and in the film you crawl, are chained up, and use body language – a growl, facial expressions and makeup – to make Max super creepy. Can you talk about that?

I looked it at as when he was human, he was a true monster in how he treated Zoe. When he got bit and transitioned, he faced his own death and all the bad things he’d done in his past. He was making amends with himself for his sins. He met her again and she had to interface with him as the Zombie. During this process, he became like an I Am Legend alpha. I thought: How does King Kong or the Hulk express their love? I wanted to bulk up to make myself look fiercer and physically more imposing. Max had great obstacles.

Max is described as “a creepy old fuck,” and “a fucking psycho.” He’s a rapist who preys upon Zoe. What can you say about playing such a despicable character (especially in this age of sexual harassment)?

When a man has to face death, he sees life in a whole new light. He didn’t get to get rid of everything – he’s half alive and half dead. He tries to say, “I’m sorry,” to Zoe, It comes out as “ROAR.”  It’s a big metaphor, and it was easier to play it that way. His physicality, and his dealing with death influences his morality and seeing what he did was wrong. That’s the great thing with horror films – the genre has great principles.

What I like about genre films is how they have ethical dimensions to them. In Day of the Dead: Bloodline, the questions are: Is it worth risking 8 lives to save 1? And should we keep a bad man alive if good can come from it? What are your thoughts about the film’s ethics/morals?

That’s a big one in government and in life. Do you take risks to let immigrants into the country? Do you not let the good ones in because there may be one bad one in there?

All the “Me, Too” issues as well. Zoe deals with a monster before he becomes a creature — though he’s not her boss. But those bigger issues, like economic crisis, are all George Romero.

When we did the [abusive] scenes, I had to play that stuff up. I had to hit [Zoe] and I hated to do that but I had to. I was raised better than that. I knew I would lose people right away but I’d lose audience to make her story more compelling. I had to be scarier, and meaner so when Max turns, I had something to play against.

According to Zoe, Max’s hormone levels are high. Can you talk about his sexual desire? Why does he pursue Zoe so relentlessly?

Day 03He sees her strength. Zoe’s got a warrior inside her. She may look vulnerable, but there’s a strength in her – and it doesn’t hurt she’s gorgeous. To quote Joseph Campbell on romantic love, “That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” He gets more excited and what he thinks is charm is coming across is like this part of him he can’t control.

Max is a zombie who hasn’t turned; he licks but doesn’t bite, which I kind of like. That said, there are scenes where he eats someone’s face off, which I also kind of like. Can you talk about playing restrained and go-for-broke?

The delicacies are tough to play with. I had to look in the mirror a lot. I had one eye that was alive and one that was dead. I tried to play either more human or more monster.

I charged the camera at lot, whatever was in the way of Zoe was fair game in my eyes. In Prom Night it’s the same thing. Someone said, “You killed all these people!” Well, they were in the way. I wanted the love of my life to see how wonderful I was. That’s in the mindset of individuals who do horrible things. It’s: goal, obstacle, action.

You do get cast as a pretty boy psycho, but you play various other roles as well. What are your thoughts on your career?

I play a lot of those characters. I like twisted and conflicted. In Marauders, I’m an officer whose wife is dying of cancer. He’s trying to make up for his bad things. He feels guilty; he thinks she got cancer because he’s such a bad guy. I love playing those dark characters. I have a film coming out called Triumph about a young boy with MS who wants to wrestle. I’m his father, and I deal with his limitations and ambition. I don’t do much comedy, but you shouldn’t cast me as a funny elf as someone just did. It comes across scary with my arms bulging.

Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2

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