President’s Day (Review)

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                                                PRESIDENTS DAY

THE SETUP

Firstly, I’d just like to say thank you to Co-Writer/Actor/Director, David Zuckerman for allowing me early access to an online screener of his feature-length, Horror/Comedy “President’s Day” (not to be confused with Chris LaMartina’s slasher of the same name). President’s Day sees a group of ill-fated teens, take a trip to a cabin in the woods to celebrate the annual holiday. Shortly after arriving, outcast, Max (played by Chelsea Taylor Leech), accidentally reads from an old journal, in turn conjuring zombified leaders in the form of past presidents. The groups only chance of survival is to call upon the demonic spirit of John Wilkes Booth (Michael Minto). The film also stars Monica Ricketts, David Zuckerman, Brittany Rosoff, Jud Zumwalt, Benjamin Goodwin, Dax Hill and Mike Ostroski. Zuckerman (a dead ringer for fellow actor, Ben Feldman) has been involved in the film making biz for around five years but this one is my introduction to his work. In horror right now zombies are all the rage. Even as I write this review, I’m sure everyone is still coming to terms with the conclusion of that latest episode of The Walking Dead (a show that I myself do not watch but I hear all about). Zombies are just as frequently the subject matter in the Horror/Comedy sub-genre as they are on TV. I’m not the most hardcore of fans when it comes to zombie related content but I’ll still give most of it a go.

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The group arrive at the cabin in the woods.

THE GOOD

The script for President’s Day was penned by a trio of Actors from the film, Goodwin, Zuckerman and Zumwalt. They definitely take a couple of cues from Sam Raimi’s, iconic “Evil Dead”, through the plot device that brings about the apocalypse (for lack of a better word) being an old journal, close enough to a book. I’m sure Raimi’s film probably wasn’t the first of its kind to be set in a secluded cabin in the woods either, though we can’t help but draw that comparison when we see a horror film with a cabin in it. I really enjoyed the opening credits, they’re interesting and well-edited, utilizing character motion in black against a backdrop of the U.S flag. The cabin itself makes for a wonderful location, particularly because the seasons look mid change during the shoot (hence the sections of snow still about). The framing is really nice, considering most of the internal shots take place in what I can only imagine were small rooms. Most of the shot choices are pretty diverse and the brief scene inside the car looked slick, not to mention the pleasant and easy on the eyes, color grading. Nearly all the dialogue audio is consistent (even with some of the ADR) and I enjoyed the piano ballad during a sensitive scene between Lilly (Ricketts) and Jake (Zuckerman).

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Jake (Zuckerman) and Lilly (Ricketts) discuss their options as they try to outwit the zombies.

Our group of high-schoolers are made up of your assorted Horror movie, stereotypes. There’s straight A student and tutor, Lilly and her maybe boyfriend, Clarence (Dax Hill), a film geek of sorts. Now I say “maybe” boyfriend because it’s never really completely clear and she’s not overly affectionate with him at any stage. Then there’s the blockhead jock, Brett (played by funny man, Jud Zumwalt) and his cheerleader, bimbo girlfriend, Ashley (Brittany Rosoff) as well as tag-along, loner sister, Max (Leech). Rounding out the group are motorcycle riding, cool guy, Jake (Zuckerman) and king of the nerds Ruttigger (played by Benjamin Goodwin), whose Brett’s key to passing high school. The performances are mostly decent given the whole film has that campy vibe about it. Both Monica and Brittany look lovely and in this case, more true to life than what you normally see in the film industry. I think everyone does their bit here but no one can doubt that Jud Zumwalt is the best thing about President’s Day. This is a guy that was born to do Comedy and it doesn’t surprise me at all that he was a Co-Writer on this film. His portrayal of Brett is hilarious. With dialogue delivery that sounds like a cross between South Park’s, “Cartman” and Ted Logan (of Bill and Ted), combined with his ridiculously over the top antics, channeling something seen in Adam McKay’s “Step Brothers”, it’s a genuine blast. So much so that in one scene where he runs naked, David himself can be seen almost laughing and breaking character (a fun easter egg).

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A couple of kitted out zombies prepare to attack.

There’s some genuinely good comedic word play on display in Zuckerman’s film. Right from the outset, Brett’s tomfoolery has you shaking your head and asking yourself, Why am I laughing at this? It doesn’t matter, the important thing is that you are (haha). His line, “She’s got an oral exam but I promise she’s coming” is just one of many humdingers throughout the film. Brett’s banter with Ruttigger, who sports a dreadful hairstyle that looks a bit like a dead skunk cross with Molly Ringwald’s do from “Sixteen Candles”, is where the humor is its strongest. Toward the end of the film there’s also some amusing dialogue about the logic of horror movies when it comes to running away. Two characters are trying to escape zombie, Abraham Lincoln (Jordan Leach) and they’re like “Why did we keep going towards the edge when we could have just turned” (haha). There’s a handful of decent practical effects in President’s Day but the film is much more comedic than violent. The highlight was in impressive axe kill with a bloody aftermath. The only thing countering it was a horrible body replica and a painfully obvious wig, neither of which matched the actor at all. During another sequence where someone is shot at close range, there’s visible squibs being used but I still applaud the effort given this is a low-budget film. Both that and the terrible props add a certain amount of charm to this little indie flick, at least in my mind.

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Ricketts, Zuckerman and Minto looking like they’re in a play together.

THE BAD

The opening scene sees a young man hurriedly writing in a journal, the same journal you can assume appears later in the film. The background noise in the beginning is a bit loud in comparison to the narration. Certain musical cues are used to surprise the viewer and elevate suspense, even those are quite loud as well considering this isn’t supposed to be a suspenseful movie. I thought a majority of the score was quite bland and most of it only seems to play as background noise in order to avoid to many scenes being solitary dialogue. The most disappointing aspect of President’s Day is its heavy reliance on sub-par CG, blood and gore and the lack of impactful deaths. I understand this is an independent film, so not everything I expect to see will make it to the screen but when you’re dealing with zombies, it’s got to be better than the competition. A good number of kills in this film take place off-screen and even the aftermath is seldom presented. Splashes of computer generated blood always look the worst, especially when most things can be done practically. There’s a tendency to want to blend separate vfx (like gunshots) with CG blood so it all fits the shot (continuity wise) but trust me when I say the bulk of fans want to see practical blood. If we get that, we can ignore second-rate effects. I managed to pick one minor slip up in dialogue delivery from Actor, Dax Hill, no big deal though because that’s quite common from actors with little to no experience.

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Brett’s (Zumwalt) exaggerated response to the fate of his study buddy, Ruttigger (Goodwin).

Parts of the acting aren’t always great and some of it’s a little to hammy for my liking but each to his own. The intonation in Goodwin’s voice got on my nerves after a while, notably when the proverbial shit hits the fan and Ruttigger’s frantic manner goes up a notch. Rosoff has an impromptu duel with one of the group near the end of the film and some of the delivery there feels a little heavy-handed as well. The Tollbooth operator only appears in the one scene but he fails to hit the mark on his exaggerated send up of characters played by the likes of Tom Bower and Tracey Walter. The only reason the entire scene isn’t a complete bust is due to Zumwalt’s ability to rescue it with more of Brett’s preposterous backchat. In fact, the only scene involving Jud that wore out its welcome, was an elongated proclamation to his sister for a beer. Aside from a couple of funny gags involving James K. Polk (Ostroski), surrounding his frustration with those that don’t know who he is, all the president stuff lacked appeal. Big chunks of the second half of the film contain scenes with the various zombie presidents joking among each other and it feels like filler because it’s just not that funny. Once again, there’s even more downtime when Booth (Minto) enters the picture, trying his best to bring the film back around but by then it’s a little too late. Nothing against the remainder of the cast playing the presidents because they gave it their all but unfortunately the enjoyment just evaporated by then.

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Clarence (Hill) and Ashley (Rosoff) share an intimate moment together.

David Zuckerman’s, “President’s Day” was an interesting but uneven entry into the zombie themed, Horror/Comedy genre. On the technical front, David has a really good grasp of what it takes to present something with a high production value. The intro credits are really inventive and the cabin and its neighboring location looks gorgeous. The camera work and shot choices are professional and most of the audio sounds good. The cliché’ and one-dimensional characters are a deliberate ruse, with dickhead, Brett being the most watchable of the bunch. The self-aware performances work more often than not and there’s a decent amount of genuinely funny chitchat, at least in the first half of the film (which I’ll assume Jud helped write). I applaud the practical effects that were presented but I just wished there were more of them. The film could have used a more distinct score and there’s a couple of volume issues with sound and cues (easily adjustable). The acting takes an occasional dip but even still, the first 50 minutes is a lot of fun but then unfortunately from there, things go kind of south. The scenes with all the presidents become a bit of a grind and the lack of on-screen carnage (at least for this viewer) leaves the last 20 minutes feeling overly long. There’s no doubting this trio of writers have talent and I’m interested to see if they venture into these horror and comedic woods again. In fact, I would have loved to have seen Zumwalt put his two cents into Jim Hosking’s “The Greasy Strangler” script, I think he could have ironed that out.. any who. As it stands, I think I prefer LaMartina’s take on “President’s Day” but if you enjoy the holiday and you’re that way inclined, keep an eye out for this one in the future because Zombie enthusiasts may enjoy it more than I did.

My rating for “President’s Day” is 5/10

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