All Souls Day comes from director Jeremy Kasten, who debuted with the underrated horror flick, The Attic Expeditions, in 2001 and writer Mark Altman, whose prior high watermark was the screenplay for Uwe Boll’s House of the Dead. This time around the story uses the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration—via the reunion of dead relatives with their families on November 1—as the cornerstone. But since this is a zombie horror film, it’s pretty much a guarantee things aren’t going to be quite so pleasant or celebratory. Righty-o, indeed.
There’s a lot of timeframe leaping going on here, so bear with the dreadful prologue segment set in 1892 that introduces Danny Trejo as the evil, evil Vargas Diaz, plotting against the townsfolk of the colorful Mexican town of Santa Bonita—mumbling something about the discovery of the lost tomb of the Goddess of Death. The film thankfully jumps forward to 1962, and it’s here we briefly meet the quintessential early 1960s vacationing American family, led by Re-Animator’s Jeffrey Combs and Halloween 4 and 5’s Ellie Cornell, who check into the only hotel in Santa Bonita. This, naturally, turns out to be one of those classic horror movie bad ideas, as their polio-stricken son Ricky (Noah Luke) has a life-changing encounter with a creepy old woman, while sexy teenage daughter Lilly (Pterodactyl’s Mircea Monroe) takes an obligatory hot bath before things take a turn for the worse.
Unfortunately that’s the last we see of Combs and Cornell (sequel, perhaps?), and it’s then the story jumps forward one final time, this time ahead 53 years, as hip young couple Joss (Travis Wester) and Alicia (Marisa Ramirez) literally crash an unconventional funeral procession in the very same town, inadvertently rescuing nude, tattooed and de-tongued Esmerelda (Danielle Burgio) from an early grave. Forced to spend the night in town, it isn’t long before the flesh-eating zombies come a-calling, plus there’s the mysterious Martia (Mulholland Drive’s Laura Harring) and a gimpy sheriff with a secret (David Keith) to provide local moody color, and a couple of additional expendable types, in the form of Tyler (Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood’s Laz Alonso) and Erica (May’s Nichole Hiltz).
Like a lot of genre titles, All Souls Day has better individual scenes than it does as a product on the whole, and the early sequence with Combs and Cornell showed great promise as sort of a bickering-Griswolds-get-attacked-by-zombies film. But that sort of geeky coolness is shortlived, as the last two-thirds tries to be Romero-esque, and aside from a nice one-on-one thigh-chewing battle between Joss and Esmerelda, it’s mostly an exercise in point-and-shoot at the shuffling zombies, or better yet, drive fast and mow them down with an expensive car.
Kasten tries to go back and forth in too many directions, with Nichole Hiltz venturing into lightweight Buffy territory with a twirling, leaping cheerleader-style attack on the undead that is unrepentantly silly (and could be fun if the whole film opted for a frothy comic book approach), and that just doesn’t mesh well with the stabs at more mature elements, such as David Keith’s leering and graphic monologue about oral sex. The two stylistic approaches butt heads repeatedly, and by the time Danny Trejo reappears as a face-licking immortal of sorts I didn’t know if it was supposed to be scary or funny.
But let me step back a few feet to re-evaluate this film from another perspective. Maybe a little less critical and perhaps just a bit more pragmatic. This is, after all, a zombie film—or more correctly a made-for-cable zombie film—so slack cutting on the premise alone should be expected considering this isn’t exactly a documentary. The setting is a bit different, and the good-looking cast do run, scream, and fight decently against the undead, and watching it on a gloomy Saturday afternoon I found that it came close to satisfying most of the expected requirements for a genre title. Not quite all the way, but close.
George Romero need not break into a cold sweat worrying about this as a challenger to the zombie throne, but as a Sci-Fi channel original, I guess All Souls Day exceeded my low expectations, and this release from Anchor Bay does all it can to distance itself from the whole cable birthright. I just would have preferred a film that used more Jeffrey Combs and Ellie Cornell. And would it be so bad to have Mircea Monroe take two baths?