The opening moments of Douglas Aarniokoski’s post-apocalyptic The Day are a veritable highlight reel of dystopic imagery: empty roads strewn with debris, forests darkened by fire, and shallow creeks muddied from years of pollution and erosion. Yet the calculated camera movement and menacing ambient silence gives this well-tread material an invigorating and dangerous feel. The threat of death feels real and all-consuming. As the film’s five roughneck heroes, armed with machetes, shotguns, and knives, make their somber march toward some unspoken destination, we understand their haunted lockstep as routine.
Aarniokoski introduces the group dynamic through coded exchanges, clearly establishing personalities and relationships without divulging too much backstory: Rick (Dominic Monaghan), the hopeful leader whose will to survive outweighs his common sense; Adam (Shawn Ashmore), his brooding brother; Henson (Cory Hardrict), their sickly best friend; Shannon (Shannyn Sossamon), Rick’s short-fused lover; and Mary (Ashley Bell), a mysterious new member of their ranks. We’re denied key information about each character’s motivations as well as the context surrounding the global disaster, and as such we’re forced to piece together specifics from scraps of cryptic dialogue. Even more unusual is the absence of an audience surrogate, an archetype that horror films often use to humanize their brutal plots. The lack of such a character here suggests that, in this particular world, innocence is extinct.
The Day transitions from a stark character study to an all-out siege scenario when the group happens upon a desolate farmhouse and comes under attack by sadistic cannibals. Aarniokoski is obviously influenced by Night of the Living Dead, and in his use of archaic costumes, weaponry, and blunt-force action kinetics The Road Warrior‘s influence is also felt. Still, the sense of mood and tension the film establishes, best personified in the conflicted character of Mary, feels uniquely its own. Though a sly mix of physical prowess and solemn resolve, Bell gives her deadly cipher striking substance; the juxtaposition of her ongoing identity struggle with the violence of her external actions represents a microcosm of the war-torn world at large. Mary personifies both the fanatical lust of her flesh-eating rivals and the impassioned resolve of her brothers in arms, more specifically a will to live free of the hunger she was raised to embrace.
But despite being a nasty and skillful action film, The Day goes off the rails in the final stretch. The heavy-handed denouement is problematic, gleefully doling out moral comeuppance in the form of a brutal murder bathed in digital arterial spray. Ultimately, Aarniokoski leaves nothing open to chance, tying up all loose ends and concocting a contrived sense of superhero-like justice for his characters. It’s all a little too tidy for a film that, at its best, is a sharp, grimy, and blood-soaked genre exercise about a populace slowly eating itself alive.