Steve Niles' Remains debuts tonight on Chiller at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Chiller’s adaptation of Remains, Steve Niles’ acclaimed graphic novel about yet another zombie apocalypse, was always going to have two really big strikes against it. The first, obviously, is that it shambled its way onto the schedule in the wake of the success of AMC’s The Walking Dead and therefore must suffer comparisons to the adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s comic masterwork. The other strike is because Chiller is, in case you didn’t know, the sister network to SyFy…and I think we all know what kind of quality one can generally expect from a SyFy Original Movie.
For what it’s worth, though, I’m pretty sure Steve Niles’ Remains would be destined to earn a shrug of indifference from most viewers no matter when or where it premiered. It’s certainly not as awful as it could be, but nor does it rise sufficiently above average zombie-movie levels to truly stand out. I must also offer the caveat that, somewhat embarrassingly, I’ve not read the original source material, so it’s possible that fans of Niles’ work may find themselves throwing things at their sets because it’s been changed so much. I’ll be curious to learn how much better the book is than the movie…unless the reverse is true, of course, but I can’t really conceive of a scenario where that’s the case.
The opening of Remains paints what must surely be the saddest picture of Reno, Nevada ever to appear on television. For all I know, this may be completely accurate, but even if it is, I can’t imagine the city’s tourism board is going to love the perception that it takes a zombie apocalypse to turn the Reno into something approximating a happening place. Via a few quick set-up shots around a pitiful-looking casino, various TVs and radios first establish that scientists are about to attempt to bring an end to the nuclear age, then that the attempt instead accidentally lights the fuse on humanity’s downfall, turning everyone who isn’t shielded by several inches of lead or steel into flesh-eating zombies. (I don’t know that anyone has ever declared, “Unto each generation must come some equivalent of Night of the Comet,” but that was certainly the first frame of reference that came to my mind.)
We get an equally speedy introduction to the handful of survivors, including Tori (Evalena Marie) and Tom (Grant Bowler), who manage to avoid zombification by doing it doggy-style in a bomb shelter, and Jensen, a nightclub magician played by Miko Hughes, who – believe it or not – played Gage in Pet Sematary. Jensen is gay, which apparently is a big deal as horror-movie characters go. Tom is somewhat dumb, as evidenced by his attempt to cross between two buildings on an incredibly thin board. (It fails.) Tori's most interesting character aspect is that she spends the film wearing Daisy dukes and cowboy boots. The Undeveloped Trio is soon joined by Victor (Anthony Marks), who you know is going to be a douchebag from the moment he’s introduced, because he’s wearing a tie, the universal indicator of a stock character who’s only out to save his own ass.
With these four characters in place, it’s time to tour the area in a slow and studied fashion, which provides multiple opportunities for the inevitable zombie attacks, the most effective occurring when Tori and Tom try to save a girl from being eaten, only to have Tom's suggested escape method backfire. (Oops.) There are also a few less violent moments, most notably a dead man’s party, if you will, where zombies are seen taking advantage of the buffet in one of the ballrooms, chowing down on everything from potted plants to the stuffing in the sea cushions. That's one slightly unique thing about the zombies in this film: they're painted as being a lot like animals, to the point where they feed them flesh and body parts like dog treats. But even that's been done, more or less. (See the film Fido for further details.) It's interesting, however, the way they set up the idea that the zombies sleep after a fashion, standing and swaying in the streets.
Remains takes a slight upturn in quality at the halfway point, when Lance Reddick joins the fray, looking 50 times more bad-ass than anyone else around him (as it ever shall be) as Ramsey, the leader of a rag-tag bunch of glorified thugs who believe that they're the saviors of humanity, following the basic slogan, "If you're not 100% with us, you're totally against us." Reddick classes up the joint considerably from an acting standpoint, as does Tawny Cypress, who plays Ramsey's daughter, Cindy, but even giving Reddick the chance to snap out lines in his wonderfully gruff delivery ("You hear me, Firecracker?") isn't enough to leave you sighing about the lack of punch that Remains delivers.
One not-great movie won't tarnish Chiller's reputation quite yet. It will, however, leave a lot of people saying, "See, I knew it wasn't going to be great." This is a shame for Chiller, but it's really a shame for Steve Niles, whose work deserved better.