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The Day of Reckoning
Adrian's Original Draft
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Irresistible concept - needs polishing but will result in unbelievable shine.
August 15, 2012
*General comments/first impressions
Ever since I read about the premise for your script at Scriptshadow, I've been hooked on the central concept. You don't need me to tell you that it's got a lot of potential! I was therefore delighted to be able to read the whole draft online. My overall impressions now that I've read it are optimistic, though it was in many ways different to what I expected. I would definitely be interested in reading future drafts, and I hope you find my comments to be useful. I should add that you've got the makings of a truly great storyteller (IMHO) and I hope to be writing at your level some day.
What can I say? It's got classic potential - it excels as an ethics-meets-zombies horror - I love the idea, and the inherent irony feels powerful and - dare I say it - high-concept.
What surprised me was that it's set in the modern world - for some reason, on reading the logline I just assumed it would be set hundreds of years ago. I think that would work too, though it's obviously not what you envisioned! And, perhaps more importantly, you'd lose what you've already got.
What I guess I'd say is that, to borrow a phrase, the 'promise of the premise' isn't fulfilled. Yes, there are zombies, and yes Burt forgoes killing any of them - but does he ever really need to? In all honesty, couldn't he just shoot more of them in the shoulder, as he did Betty? Or punch them like he did Ray? Couldn't he incapacitate them in lots of different ways? There was even a moment early on when he 'suddenly noticed the policeman's taser' - which doesn't then develop.
What I envisaged from your premise was a) that Burt's faith would be something we'd be in awe of - despite everything, he sticks to his guns (for want of a better phrase!) and b) that he'd be mega resourceful in proving that there's always another way (a seed planted when he refers to God not tempting us beyond what we can manage). He'd make pacifism and survival/heroics compatible.
Instead, it felt like he was, yes, maintaining his no-kill stance - but I have to say it became annoying. Now, of course it should be annoying - but to those who disagree with him in the story, not to us.
If, on the other hand, he can find resourceful ways round the problem, we'd find this endearing - we'd root for him more.
I realise he gets by - but for the most part he's just running away. He may be running to his wife and child, but it feels more like he's running away from the zombies.
I'll talk more about this in the next sections, but on a more general level, I think the potential of the theme is massive - and is well realised in lots of ways, though not fully. I look forward to seeing this develop in future drafts.
*Structure / Character
There are several things that I would suggest you consider with regard to the structure - some drastic, others less so.
First, I'd bring the zombies in later. Hint at the storm to come, but take more time and give more space to the backstory and a richer, denser set up.
Burt's conflict is a human/religious/personal one, and you're fine to get stuck in to this from the get go - but the zombies can wait. If you need an 'inciting incident' or equivalent for circa p17, this could be the question from Eli (or alternative) currently on p14 about whether he would kill to save his family. Burt hesitates. This is, to me, a turning point for him. Then push the zombie attack further back - from p25, p30 or even later.
Second, off the back of this I'd say (as did the scriptshadow review) that you should ditch the later Burt-can't-find-the-house section - despite the reason, it's hard to swallow / not enjoyable.
In fact, while I like the Burt-as-zombie twist, I wonder why he should take so long in gestation compared to the others - maybe he could get bitten much later (poss by Betty) - it would still make a successful twist.
On the other hand, I would give Sammy the dog a longer gestation period - start the whole script with Sammy's illness - not only is this a great plant for later, when the soil in his grave is seen stirring - but also, it allows you to show straight away Burt's faith in action. And, as a bonus you'll get a stronger parallel with the later mercy kill refusal re: John.
I would use this to show Isaac's support of his dad, too - that at the start, Isaac has the faith - only Betty is doubtful - and all the men are positioned effectively against her.
Then later, you have the potential to show Isaac as having changed - and understanding the mercy element, as his mother would, he kills Burt once Burt is a zombie and has failed to take his own life (I'll expand on this below). Is it a more 'hollywood ending'? I guess so, but I like the scope for character development in Isaac.
Also on character: Burt is clearly conflicted between his faith (represented by Ray and John) and his lost child (represented by Betty)... You show Betty chucking her cross, which is a clear image - you also have Ray's admonition of Burt for not having been preaching on the day Aaron died. I would bring this out more. Set the men and Betty more directly against one another.
Have Betty ask Burt if, when the baby's born, the two of them and their kids can move away - start a fresh life (implication is that they'll leave his family and preaching behind).
Further, have the men drive Burt further away than he expected when they go to preach - they can argue, with Burt thinking it more appropriate that he spend the anniversary of his child's death with his wife; and they can comment (for example) "but does she bring you closer to God?"
Then when it comes to heading back to save her, it's more powerful because a) it's further (again, something that the scriptshadow review mentioned) and b) Burt's made a decision to go back to his family - due to his love - forget the key to the shelter; this serves only to cheapen his real motivation. As soon as the zombies are coming, whether there are signs that they are spreading back that far or not, whether or not Betty phones, Burt should be thinking "I have to get back". In fact, you could plant this before the zombie presence - Burt has already decided to go back to be with them (prompting an argument with Ray and, to a lesser degree, John) when all hell breaks loose.
To complement this at Betty's end, she and Isaac can head over to (for example) Ray's house, across the road, where there's either a shelter, or a spare key to her and Burt's shelter if you prefer. They can then encounter a shedload of zombies, and it will more plausibly delay Burt in finding them.
For more irony and more potential for ethical debate, I'd consider shifting not only the location of the preaching spot, but also its nature - perhaps an out-of-town abortion or euthanasia clinic? These may seem too obvious; you could also try elsewhere but I think there should be an implication that those to whom he is preaching are 'killing'. Might this even extend to anywhere serving meat as he was obviously against the family dog being killed? Something to consider if you haven't already!
The whole foundation of the story should be that it should become increasingly hard for Burt not to kill / increasingly necessary that he does kill.
You do raise the stakes in terms of who it is that he has to save - Ray, John, Betty and finally Isaac - but the stakes in terms of difficulty don't seem to raise in the same way. If anything, John's death feels like the hardest.
I know the decision to take his own life at the end (though unsuccessful) is a hard one, but it doesn't feel as selfless (weirdly) as it might. Burt should definitely be challenged to break his own belief to save his son, but to do it in the way he tries is more like granting himself the mercy he never showed John.
On realising he has no bullets left, he could realise the best thing he can do is free his son from the family curse - tells him it's okay for him to defend against the living dead. Starting with him.
Tells his son what Betty had been hinting at - they're already in hell - wherever they go next can't be worse.
And so, without a gun, Isaac is able to put his father to a peaceful end (perhaps some overdose from the extensive medical supplies paramedic Burt would no doubt keep in the shelter / house).
Some touches I really like:
'I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me' - really neat and plays into the pacifism-as-heroism core appeal.
The way John speaks - I can really feel his nature through his words.
The way the guys say 'God bless you, sinner' to everyone at the beginning. If they can say this to zombies throughout the movie, could have hilarious potential.
Some aspects I don't like:
All students do is swear - feels a bit lazy. The worst culprit:
'Oh my God! No f***ing way! Zombies!'
All Betty does is moan - makes her hard to sympathise with, and as mentioned elsewhere, I feel she's one-dimensional.
All Burt seems to do is whine as well (his mantra/prayer re: Jesus notwithstanding). He needs more weapons in his arsenal; even if they're not guns, some more determination in his words would help!
*Cinematic value / Special qualities
There are some great visual moments, and naturally many of these are grim: the skinny zombie girls come to mind, and of course Betty's zombie turn.
As discussed above, I think making the journey stretch further will increase the cinematic value. I also think having Burt come up with neat ways to dispatch his foes non-fatally would be gripping and visually entertaining. Zombies wrapped in duct tape. Zombies with buckets over their heads. Zombies locked in a bowling alley. You can have lots of fun with it!
There is also a lot of potential tension in the premise, and I think this comes out to a degree - but to really make the most of the cinematic medium, and really play to the strengths of your idea, I think you need to balance the hopelessness and the hope.
It's a hopeless situation which would normally be solved by hope in the form of lots of weapons. This needs to be replaced by hope in the form of Burt's faith. If you can get this right, this would be very special indeed.
*Some additional/side thoughts:
Is Burt the only one who can save everyone? The Johnson Brothers + lots of guns - why is nobody else in a position to kill the rest of the zombies, except the one man who won't?
Why doesn't Betty react at all to the emergency broadcast screen?
Baby feels like a setup for Betty's final scene only - makes Betty seem one dimensional. I realise it's a horror movie, but as things stand, it feels kind of gratuitous. Whatever you decide, I'd suggest you set this whole thing to 18+!
As an alternative ending for Burt, could you go for an 'if your left hand causes you to sin, cut it off' ending? - i.e. Burt survives zombiedom by cutting off the affected part. Then works with Isaac fighting off the remainder. Looks after his son as he intended.
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The Day of Reckoning, Adrian's Original Draft
Adrian D Ceranowicz
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