Horror films are cheap to make. They’re gimmicky, relying on a simple hook to generate a plot. They can create franchises. These are all tried-and-true tropes that show themselves in the “Death Day” franchise. “Death Day” though is not really a horror franchise. They’re comedies first and foremost, and this gives them leeway to explore situations a bit more than the simple kill-or-be-killed scenario employed by so many other films. So there are ideas in the films. Sort of. Both “Death Day” films have some elements of brain in them which is both good and bad.
Directed by Christopher Landon, the first film tells the story of Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe), a college student stuck living the same day over and over again. Her life resets every night when she is killed by a psycho killer in a baby mask. She has to narrow down the possible suspects whether it be the dweeby Carter (Israel Broussard), roommate Lori (Ruby Modine), prom queen Danielle (Rachel Matthews) or any other number of people and stop the loop from resetting before her body finally gives out.
The sequel picks up right where the first film left off, with Tree having stopped the killer and broken the loop. Or so she thinks. She discovers that one of Carter’s friends, Ryan (Phi Vu), has built a molecular device that started her frustrations with the time loop. He sets it off when a doppelganger tries to kill him, sending Tree back to the same day again, but in a parallel multiverse where her boyfriend, Carter, is dating Danielle instead of her and her long-deceased mother is still alive. And there’s still a crazy psycho killer trying to murder her.
The premise is a gimmick. They even directly reference “Groundhog Day” in the film. That’s fine. No one is looking for world changing cinema here. They’re just trying to have fun, and they mostly succeed at that. The horror isn’t gross. It’s funny. The filmmakers know what they’re doing. It’s just a matter of bringing out the inherent humor to create a worthwhile popcorn flick. In that respect, the first film accomplishes more than the second one.
The first film hits all the necessary beats of the standard horror-comedy. Setup, character motivation, escalating tension, payoffs. They’re all there in a somewhat fun, interesting way. It’s just strange enough to be amusing.
The second one is too similar to the first, not going crazy enough to warrant its existence. The whole multiverse angle is interesting, but Tree never visits other dimensions. Ryan himself says that there are six other ones so why not? You could have her bouncing around all of these crazy scenarios with six different psycho killers after her. Six different variations of Carter. Things could have been crazy wild, but we instead pretty much just get a rehash of the first film, with one interesting dilemma: Tree’s mom is alive in this parallel dimension, but if she stays, she’ll sacrifice her relationship with her boyfriend. What should she do? That kind of question, while interesting, is actually a little too dramatic for this kind of movie, and the film struggles with balancing that quandary with all the fun horror-comedy things going on around it.
Tree is a strong character. She’s not some damsel in distress. She’s strong-willed, thinks through her actions and develops a plan. She saves Carter more than he saves her. It’s refreshing and a more modern take on the horror-comedy. The other characters around her could be beefed up a little. Much like so many other films of similar ilk, they are unable to really break free of their stereotypes.
But hey, this is a film series where the protagonist is shot, stabbed, crushed, poisoned, electrocuted, burned or blown up every few minutes. What you get is good enough.