Friday, June 17, 2011

Amateur Friday - The Day Of Reckoning

Genre: Horror/Zombie
Premise: After a Zombie outbreak erupts, a devout Street Preacher must struggle to make it home and save his pregnant wife and young son while determined to keep to God's commandments—especially, thou shalt not kill.
About: Every Friday, I review a script from the readers of the site. If you’re interested in submitting your script for an Amateur Review, send it in PDF form, along with your title, genre, logline, and why I should read your script to Keep in mind your script will be posted in the review (feel free, however, to use an alias and fake title).
Writer: Adrian Damian Ceranowicz
Details: 92 pages

I picked Day of Reckoning because it was one of the better structured loglines I’d received. It was not, however, a great idea in and of itself. As I’ve stated before, the zombie genre is one of the toughest to infiltrate because every single zombie idea has been done before. You have to do something different to stand out. That’s why the late-incubation zombie spec Maggie made so much noise. That’s why Oren’s script, “The Kitchen Sink” made so much noise. If you’re just trying to write a good ole fashioned homage to your favorite zombie films, you’re throwing yourself to the zombies. Because a producer knows he can’t sell that. Does this mean The Day Of Reckoning is DOA. No. You still have one last ace up your sleeve. Execute your idea perfectly. Not 80%. Not 90%. Not six championships, not seven, not eight, not nine. We’re talking about a 100% perfect execution of your premise. If you do that, you can get away with an average idea. So, did Reckoning do that?

30-something priest Burt is still coming to grips with the death of his 8 year old son a year earlier. Times are tough, but his pregnant wife Betty and his other son, Isaac (the son’s twin) are slowly starting to get back to normal. The thing that keeps Burt going is his faith in God. He assures his family that everything’s going to be okay as long as they keep the faith.

Dedicated priest that he is, Burt, his brother, and his father, head over to the local university and start blasting bible passages out of a bullhorn. Cause, you know, college kids love that. Pretty soon they’ve drawn a small crowd of hecklers, and Burt’s getting into it with them.

One of these kids asks him if you automatically go to hell if you kill someone. Burt says, yes, every time. “Even if it’s in self-defense?” the coed asks, worrying about his soldier brother. “Every time,” Burt assures him. A few hours into this God and pony show, some strange looking dudes with stumble-itis start eating the crowd. Oh shit! ZOMBIES!

People are bitten. People start running. And within minutes, it’s clear that the town is under attack. While the college kids seem to be aware that these are zombies, our hero, Burt, does not. He just thinks they’re a bunch of seriously sick individuals.

Well, after his dad gets bitten, Burt realizes there may be more to this than he thought, and he and his brother find a car to drive him to the hospital. But man, there are like, zombies, EVERYWHERE. They don’t get very far, and soon Burt’s brother is bitten as well.

Back at the house, Betty and Isaac are fending off their own set of zombies, and when Betty finally gets a hold of Burt, she tells him that they won’t be able to hold them off forever. So Burt changes gears and heads back to save his family, all while not being able to kill the monsters in his way, lest he get sent to hell.

The Day Of Reckoning is a noble effort in that it wants to explore the emotional component of a zombie attack. It’s trying to make a bigger statement than just, “Zombies eat people.” But in making everything so over-the-top serious and so over-the-top dramatic, combined with the fact that it doesn’t bring anything new to the table, it comes off as unintentionally clich├ęd, a simplified version of many zombie films we’ve already seen before.

I had a bunch of issues here actually, and it started at the top, with the story itself. The scale here is too small. We follow a gang of priests who we know nothing about to a college to yell at people, and then one of them has to travel 15 blocks (I’m assuming? Give or take?) to save his family. For a movie, that’s a tiny concept. It’s almost something you’d expect a group of film school students with no money to come up with to shoot themselves (which might be the case, I don’t know). When I originally read this logline, I imagined something closer to The Road, with a husband travelling cross-country with his pregnant wife and son, fending off zombies without being able to kill them. I was disappointed when the idea was more “Zombies in Suburbia,” which I don’t think is as interesting.

My next problem was Burt. Remember guys, how you introduce your main character has a HUGE impact on how we perceive them for the next 100 minutes. A character telling a funny joke vs. a character saving someone’s life vs. a character kicking a girl out of bed after sex vs. a character standing up to authority…all of those actions have very different effects on the audience. So you have to be judicious in what you show your hero doing in those early scenes.

While having Burt head to the local university to tell a bunch of college kids they’re going to hell MAY fit in with his character, it does not endear us to him, and so we pretty much hate Burt from the start. I don’t believe in God so I’m going to Hell? Yeah, that’s the guy I want to catch a movie with on a Saturday night. I mean obviously this is subjective. A devout Catholic may LOVE Burt because of this opinion. But since this is written for the masses and not Sunday Mass, you have to be more mindful of what your hero says and does.

Next we have the second act. And while this problem is more a consequence of a previous problem (the idea being too small), it still needs to be fixed. The fact that Burt gets to his house and then CAN’T FIND IT FOR 30 PAGES is a really bad story choice. He stumbles to the left. Can’t find his house. Stumbles to the right. Can’t find his house. Passes it again. Can’t find it. Passes it again. Can’t find it. I know this is explained later (spoiler: we find out he was bitten) but it doesn’t excuse the 70s style injured damsel in distress pulling herself away from the killer at .7 miles per hour. Plus it just felt like the story was stalling in order to get to the 90 page mark. When nothing new is happening in your script for 30 pages, that’s not a good thing.

But the biggest issue of them all is the lack of punch behind the “Thou Shall Not Kill” device. This is the hook of your movie. A guy must survive a zombie attack without being able to “kill” the zombies. That’s the thing I was looking forward to the most. “Oh man,” I wondered, “How is he going to pull this off??” But Burt’s belief in this principle is sold to us via a sloppy conversation with an annoying college kid. That’s not how you sell the most important device of your movie. If you want to sell something important, you have to SHOW US. Not TELL US.

For example (and I’m not saying Adrian should do this cause it might cause more problems than it’s worth), if you started the movie a year ago with a bad guy holding Burt’s son at knife point and Burt has a choice to either KILL him or NOT KIL him, and he chooses not to kill him, which results in his son being murdered, that action (or lack of action) sells Burt’s belief in “Thou shall not kill” a billion times better than a half-hearted conversation on a college campus. Remember guys. These are movies we’re talking about. SHOW us things. Don’t tell us things.

Now there were some good things in “Reckoning.” I thought the last 15 pages were pretty powerful. From the flashbacks to the twist reveal to the gaping womb of Betty to Burt finally having to make that decision (kill or don’t kill). Maybe the script did a better job than I’m giving it credit for because I was into it. But it was too little too late. Burt stumbling around outside his house for 30 minutes was the death knell for this script. It killed every bit of momentum it had.

So “Reckoning" needs a big rewrite. The storyline needs to be bigger. Burt’s character needs to be redesigned (so we’ll root for him). Not everything can be so melodramatic. A whole new second act needs to be written without the “I’ve fallen and I can’t find my house” segment. And most importantly, the “Thou shall not kill” commandment has to be sold more convincingly. If that isn’t convincing, this movie doesn’t work.

I probably sound too harsh but I think writers forget how much effort needs to be put into a script. Just getting from point A to point B isn’t enough. You gotta push yourself. Especially with these zombie flicks since there’s so much competition. Always be asking yourself, “Have I seen this in a zombie movie before?” If the answer is yes, consider changing it. Good luck!

Script link: The Day Of Reckoning

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Something to consider when writing preacher characters - To non-religious people, all bible passages sound the same. So when you’ve got your preacher spouting this psalm and then that psalm and then that psalm, a large portion of your readers are hearing gibberish. Instead, try and individualize the message. For example, on page 13 Burt says, “All right. Young people, answer me this. Would you sell your eyes for a million dollars?” “Yes. No! What kind of question is that?” “How about five million?” “No! Never! Not for any amount!” “Then why are you all so eager to sell your soul for a little bit of sin?” That was the only religious thing Burt said in 100 pages that I actually thought about, because it wasn’t “random passage from Bible 8324.” It was a thoughtful point that the character himself came up with.