Dead people that shamble on mindlessly. Getting the blood sucked out of you. Creatures that live just beyond human perception. The best horror concepts tap into something primal. As a man in constant need of a nap, the premise of Day 5 terrifies me: If you fall asleep, you die.
Using one of the most basic urges of all as a source of its terror, Day 5 is the first original series from Austin-based Rooster Teeth, the production studio best known for shows like Red vs. Blue and RWBY. The pilot starts off with main character Jake wandering off into the desolate streets of Austin in search of a lighter for his meth pipe. As he wanders along under a birdless sky, he slowly learns that almost everyone around him died in their sleep. He soon meets 13-year-old Sam and a handful of other survivors who are all desperately trying to stay awake as long as humanly possible.
I went to visit the Day 5 set outside of Austin a month ago and spoke to showrunner and co-creator Josh Flanagan and some cast members. In between takes in an empty hospital wing, I asked Stephanie Drapeau (who plays night-shift nurse Ally) why she signed on to a show with such a disturbing-arse premise. "Aren't disturbing-arse premises the most fun?" she asked. "They create the greatest stakes and most crazy, insane circumstances. It's been fun reacting to the types of obstacles that these characters come up against. If you think of people not sleeping for a long time, there's a lot of crazy shit that can happen. So we're faced with individuals and situations where people are freaking out and we have to handle that. None of these people can just sleep on it and hope for the best."
Jesse C. Boyd plays Jake and told me that the writing was what drew him in. "The first couple of auditions I had, I read the full scripts for the first episodes. I really liked the writing and the way that they're handling this very serious situation with an exciting, thrill-ride pace. There's not a lot of time to figure things out but there are also a lot of scenes that are fun and funny in the midst of all these high-stakes moments. It's hard to pull that off."
While its productions enjoy a healthy popularity with video game enthusiasts and animation fans, Rooster Teeth isn't a huge Hollywood entity with deep pockets. Flanagan told me that the core concept of Day 5 came in part as a reaction to the onerous financial considerations of mounting a live-action end-of-the-world scenario. "The original concept was [co-founder] Burnie Burns'. He was trying to come up with a way to make an apocalyptic story on a lower budget," Flanagan explained. "If everyone died in their beds, you wouldn't have to shoot stuff like barricades being overrun. So it was approached from a budgetary level from the very beginning but it's such a relatable thing because everyone knows what it's like to be this ridiculously tired."
Day 5 is trying to find the fear that can be conjured up by a complete lack of bodies as opposed to a swarm of undead ones. But, true to post-apocalypse genre convention, the show is still assembling a motley crew of survivors. "Each of the characters are in different spots, different walks of life but they all need to be up at 3:00 a.m," Flanagan said. "So we have the protagonist who's a meth addict on a drug bender and that just happens to save his life. There are more professional people, too, like a doctor on an overnight shift and the pilot of a redeye flight. One of our big top-down questions was what kind of people would populate that world."
I told Flanagan that the ideas he was talking about reminded me of Y: The Last Man, the classic Vertigo comic-book series by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra that chronicled the story of one hapless dude who wakes up to find he's the last living human male. "We actually looked at Y: The Last Man a lot, in terms of how they progress the plot," he replied.
Guideposts for executing the show's first season came from a variety of other places, too. "I am a big Night of the Living Dead fan," Flanagan said. "But, with this show, it's only five days in so you don't have the time for staples we see in other apocalyptic stories. They have haven't developed communities, factions or commodities and there's no constant threat of zombies or what-have-you. So we looked at really strange stuff like the Crank movies and Mad Max in terms of keeping the stakes high and moving things at a fast pace."
"There are some horror elements, especially when you're talking about the people who use pain to stay awake but I would say [the show] is closer to a thriller," Flanagan offered. "It can go from very calm to very scary in the blink of an eye. [People] are totally fine and then they're crashing. There's always this constant element of tension. They need a constant supply of something that works [to keep them awake] and then certain stimulants stop working."
Flanagan, who helped write the screenplay for last year's action/comedy spoof Lazer Team, says Rooster Teeth wants to present an aesthetically brighter, oversaturated sort of end-of-days. "Instead dreary grey/brown tones, we went the opposite way to embrace the delirium and make a much more vibrant, colourful show," he told me. "We're shooting it anamorphic, too, so it's a little strange-looking. Tonally, I think it's a surprisingly funny show. There's stuff like Walking Dead and all these shows that take themselves very seriously and that works. But we modelled our tone more on Breaking Bad, where it's a serious show but there are dark humour elements to it."
"All these characters have already been awake for five days when we meet them," he continued. So you'll have people who are delirious and hallucinating, which gives us all these cool methods to learn about characters in these surreal sequences." While there'll be plenty of over-caffeinated human beings in Day 5, don't go looking for beasts of any sort. "In most apocalypses, the animals are still hanging out," Flanagan said. "Ours are dead." That's one way to go vegan.
Day 5's first six-episode season kicks off this Sunday. I've already seen seen the pilot and there's a lo-fi charm to the proceedings that won me over. In one quiet moment, Sam asks Jake, "You think I'll ever live long enough to have sex?" The meth-head replies by saying "That is the best life goal that I've ever heard and I am going to ensure that you see it through. Or die trying." That exchange initially reads a cheap goof based on adolescent randiness but it also drives home the sorrowful reality that this teenager has inherited. In episode one, characters were already gobbling down Ritalin, drinking Red Bull like water and taking shots of adrenaline straight to the chest. That kind of over-the-top indulgence would typically be found in the third act climaxes of most apocalypse fiction, but it's where Day 5 starts.
It feels like Day 5's manic central premise will give the show the chance to play fast and loose with tone and performance. It can swing from hamminess to abrupt violence to nihilism quickly and without justification because these characters will be living on the sleep-deprived edge of insanity. If it doesn't scare people off taking naps ever again, Day 5 might be a cult favourite waiting to happen.