Johnathon Schaech Talks the Thrills of Zombie Flesh Eating in 'Day of the Dead: Bloodline'

Day Of The Dead Jonathan Schaech

Johnathon Schaech hopes that this second Day of the Dead remake will celebrate the genius and the gore of George A. Romero.

Johnathon Schaech is a bit of a horror junkie. You may recognize him best from his stint on Showtime’s Ray Donovan, or as that frustrated Wonder in That Thing You Do, but Schaech has slowly built a collection of terrors in his filmography. With his writing partner, Richard Chizmar, he’s adapted various horror short stories for Masters of Horror and Fear Itself, as well as the Ed Gorman thriller, The Poker Club. He’s previously appeared in the Prom Night remake, the 8MM sequel, and in the husband that rocks the cradle thriller, Hush. When given the opportunity, Schaech relishes in the creepy and crawly corners of cinema.

The actor delighted at the opportunity to slap on the latex and transform his handsome visage into the rotting ick of the undead. In Day of the Dead: Bloodline (the second remake of George A. Romero’s 80s classic), Johnathon Schaech is Max, the obsessive psychopath who returns from the dead to further haunt Sophie Skelton’s good doctor. It’s a gift to play two sides of the psychopath coin, but Max also offers Schaech a chance to channel some of his favorite midnight movie monsters. Some of those creatures may be more obvious than others.

We spoke to Schaech about his cinematic zombie influences, the pleasures of practical effects, and just what George Romero would actually think about this new take on his beloved film. Day of the Dead: Bloodline will be available in Theaters and on VOD and Digital HD on January 5th.

So, jumping right into it, as Max, the zombie villain of the piece, your character is easily the most fun to watch in the film. I mean, it has to be a blast to play?

Of course. Getting in make up for four and a half hours isn’t fun, but after that, it’s just a blast.

Four and a half hours?

Yeah, and the initial is longer than that. Then we kind of dwindled it down. It was a daunting task. It was a lot of work.

You’ve done some prosthetic work before with Jonah Hex in Legends of Tomorrow, but this is much more extensive.

Yeah. It was all-encompassing. My hand, my head, my body. We didn’t know exactly what was going to be shown. I had this huge bite mark, somebody bit me on my shoulder. So yeah, it was a lot of work.

Once you’re in costume, did you have any references cinematically or otherwise to pull from, to portray the zombie Max?

Yeah. Gary Oldman’s Dracula, Borris Karlof’s Frankenstein, and Dash Mihok in I Am Legend. I wanted to have a zombie, or monster, a creature that was somewhere between all of those.

I the original film, Sherman Howard as Bub, is much more of a…I don’t know…he’s a friendly zombie. Your Max is definitely not.

Yeah, I wanted that humanity to come through, but it wasn’t set up to do that. I mean they didn’t want me to have any of those stupid zombie humorous tones.

I really wanted to play them. I love Bub. That’s why I signed on to do it. I wanted to be Bub so bad. I was like, I get to play Bub? Are you kidding? I’m totally in! I would play that, there’s some elements of it. You couldn’t put the headphones on like he did and kind of come to this realization. There was no time for that, they didn’t allow that as much. When I put my mouth to smell her arm that one time, it was kind of the closest I got to that intimacy, understanding between Bub and the doctor. I love that man. That Bub is awesome.

How familiar were you with the original film or the original trilogy before taking on this role?

I’m a horror nut. So I just love all that stuff. I worked with George Romero, me and Richard Chizmar worked with him on this Stephen King script [From A Buick Eight]. I really studied those guys. Why they did the horror genre? It comes down to he was successful. He was successful with the first one so he kept making them. That’s why we made this one. People want to see that kind of world.

So this take on the Bub character and the monster, the zombie that has humanity in it. That’s what we were exploring and I know Romero had so many reasons why he was getting into the world of zombies. I don’t know if that was his initial idea, but then he started realizing, he put a whole economic spin on zombies and why the undead are still alive and stuff like that. But I think when we deal with zombies, we just deal with death. What happens, it’s going to happen. What happens if it happens in front of us and those people outnumber us? That’s the way I looked at it.

The word “remake” these days is thrown around like a dirty word. Did you have any trepidation following in the original footsteps?

No, because it’s just fun I think.

Confident man.

I think at this point no one is going to compare us and say, “oh you can’t try to remake the original.” I mean there’s so many down the road. Even Christa Campbell, who got me involved, she had done one other Day of the Dead [2008]. I remember going to the theater to see it. It had big effects and tons of zombies charging the fort. It’s just the recreating it. I really loved that they wanted to explore the zombie more. I tried my darnedest to create a, not too often can you create a creature. Like Doug Jones does with del Toro. So that’s what I really wanted to get across.

I don’t know if we got it across or not, and there’s so many special effects and hypersensitivity with the film that you don’t really get those little nuances that Borris was called to show in Frankenstein.

Let’s go back to those references. Karloff, Oldman, Doug Jones. How did they inspire you? What did you take specifically from those performances?

Well the relationship that Oldman had, the love, the longing, was what I took out of that. With Karloff it was this innocent, this massive monster that had this unknowing of what he was and how he was trying to express his feelings and not identifying them, not being able to get them across. With I Am Legend, this charge that was inside of them to defeat and win. I felt like the character, Max, is a monster before he becomes a zombie.

Right. A human beast.

He can’t get across his love and his desire. He wants to let Zoe know that he really just loved her. He just didn’t know how to handle it. So, for the rest of the film he’s basically asking for her forgiveness and wants her to love him. That’s what I got from those characters.

The origins of Max are possibly even darker than the zombie apocalypse. Pre-Rotter Max is just as much of a monster. Did you play those as two characters or did you see Max’s pre and post as one being?

No, no. Exactly. He was the monster before he became the zombie. Then when he was bitten he had to face his death. Facing your death you really start to look at your life in a different way. I think when he comes to realize when he’s surrounded by nothing but rotters and no humanity and no Zoe, he loses his own needs. He has to make up for the things he did in the past. So when he gets the opportunity, even though he’s a zombie now, and he’s got that fire shooting through him, the feeding frenzy he’s trying to control, he still just wants to let her know that he’s sorry for what he did. Yeah. The redemption quality, that’s what I was really going for.

What was your relationship on set with Sophie Skeleton as Zoe?

Well you know, at first, the way that I break down characters is I want to be able to really fall in love with Max. But then I started realizing that in beginning he’s such a monster. He’s such a piece of shit really that I started doing…I started being that for her so that our protagonist had something to fight against. Even though he’s trying to ask for forgiveness and redemption, he doesn’t deserve it. So it gave Zoe more to play with, and Sophie is a star. I guarantee she’s going to be a huge star. Been around a lot of actresses and she just got the qualities that can … The vulnerability and the strength that we need in leading ladies nowadays.

Those scenes, especially toward the end of the film when Max and Sophie are face to face finally, and Max is unchained, they get really, really dark. Now, on set, is that an uncomfortable scene to play? Or are you just playing zombie movie, having a good time?

We definitely had a good time. But there was … Being a romantic individual myself, knowing that I look like the way that I looked when I was doing those scenes, it was really difficult to not just be the charming handsome guy that I was … I know I have a lot of darkness in me to be that guy. I’m sure she was just scared shitless of this guy with these prosthetic feet and these contacts and blood everywhere and just dirty. I’m sure she was just crazy at this whole thing as it was.

At what point did you know that Max as a creature and a character would work?

Getting her to forgive me was my point of reference. Although, after that first bite, what was the one thing I really wanted? I would have loved them to film him while he was in that hospital just sitting there, like in purgatory. With all these other rotters. I wanted to kill more rotters. I just thought that would be so interesting that he’s caught in this horrible state of hell, you can’t get out of it and all of a sudden an angel comes back to see him and he’s like, I’m so sorry for the way that I acted and the things that I did. I’ve been in jail for so long, I’d love for us to get back together. That kind of crazy thought.

There is that one part at the end –

Yeah I know I wanted that so bad earlier too. He hates rotters. I love the fact that Max hated all the rotters, he didn’t want to be like them even though there’s parts of him that were like that. Half of them.

How do you think George Romero would react to your film if he got the chance to see it?

I think he’d probably turn it off. (Laughter) But he’d love the kills for sure. They’re a lot of fun. Romero would have fun with those parts. And he’d want more.

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Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.