A small group of scientists and military officers hide out in an underground bunker, trying to figure out a cure for the zombie plague, and fearing they might be the only ones left alive on earth.
George A Romero is the king of zombie flicks, and by 1985 he’d already made two zombie films that are considered classics; “Day of the Dead” was the third. While none of his films could be called light-hearted or fun, “Day of the Dead” takes the cake in terms of being grim and depressing. It’s a film that confines our heroes to a hopeless situation, turns up the heat, and watches them sweat in misery. While “Night of the Living Dead” and “Dawn of the Dead” are gory and violent, they do have their humorous moments. “Day of the Dead” is far less humorous, and it takes joy in giving us a cast of characters that aren’t exactly likeable, a setting more claustrophobic than a coffin, and enough gore to make a slaughterhouse worker sick. This is a grimmer take zombies; it’s a movie that truly puts the ‘apocalypse’ back in zombie apocalypse.
"I'm running this monkey farm now, Frankenstein!"
While “Night of the Living Dead” focused on a zombie outbreak, and “Dawn of the Dead” was set in the few days following the initial contact, “Day of the Dead” takes place after the infection has already taken quite a toll on humanity. When we first meet our heroes, they’re on an expedition to a town, trying to make contact with someone- anyone- that can hear their radio signal. The town is overrun with zombies, and signs of destruction and deterioration pollute buildings and streets; it’s clear there’s no one left in town. The heroes return to a bunker, and immediately head underground to report to their superiors, where the full direness of the situation reveals itself. The few men and one remaining woman living in this bunker are at wits end, they’ve been here for what seems like months, and now they’ve lost all communication with any outside people. Moral is low; the men are frustrated with being trapped inside all day, and some of them keep eyeing the remaining woman greedily; their scientific research is going slow, and the doctor has been dubbed ‘Frankenstein’ by the soldiers; there’s been open talk of mutiny… but then, the question always remains: in a world overrun by zombies, where do you go to find safety?
I think this movie brilliantly portrays one of the things that draw me to the zombie genre; it shows the stripping away of all of our comforts, securities, possessions, and dignity, and it puts us in a situation where the only real rule is to survive. It’s always interesting to ponder what the human race would devolve to if a situation like this were to arise; how would people react; how long would it take them to stop putting others first; how long before they started killing others to survive? It’s a theme that a lot of horror movies look at, but few take it so far as this film. When we open, our heroes have already been stripped of every comfort, and they’re already at each other’s throats- it’s as if the world they’re living in is soaked in gasoline, and the slightest spark will send the entire thing up in smoke.
The film explodes, and it doesn’t take that long. Soon, we’re shown a message that George A Romero has been trying to show us with every one of his zombie movies- that the most frightening creature isn’t a zombie, it’s man, and man’s total indifference to the wellbeing of others when his or her life is on the line. As far as writing goes, this is probably one of the more psychologically interesting films Romero has made. All of his films have had political messages, but this one seems to put that in the forefront. Of course, the real reason one comes to see a zombie flick isn’t the political messages; it’s the gallons of blood and buckets of gore. So, how does this one hold up?
It’s been more than thirty years since this movie came out, and Tom Savini’s effects look just as nauseatingly real as ever. Even the title card of this film features a zombie with his jaw missing and his tongue wriggling around like a red snake, but that is just the first bloody taste. We’re shown dozens of headshots, limbs being ripped off, organs falling out of rib cages, faces ripped in half, stomachs splayed open, and more hacking and slashing than Jason could ever accomplish on any Friday the 13th. This movie is gory as all get out (I don’t know what else you expected from a George A Romero movie), but it is glorious. Obviously, this movie isn’t for the faint of heart- if anything this is one of the gorier zombie flicks I’ve seen (and I’ve seen quite a few).
But while I really appreciated the underlying statements about humanity in this film, and the effects were absolutely out of this world, there are some issues. The biggest (and loudest) problem being Joseph Pilato (“Pulp Fiction”), who plays Rhodes, one of the military men whom eventually takes charge. Pilato’s performance as Rhodes is so over the top that it’s almost hard not to laugh; he spends nearly the entire movie screaming at the top of his lungs, resulting in some truly wonderful delivery of some truly mediocre lines. While I really enjoy a lot of Romero’s work, one thing he has never been great at is writing believable dialogue, and Pilato accentuates that beyond measure. I can’t say I was taken out of the movie because of his performance- at times, his constant yelling actually brings a lot to the film, but I do wish he had a little bit more range so the yelling actually had impact.
While George A Romero zombie movies aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, the people that do like his films tend to be ecstatic about them. Many a film student has looked at the low budget “Night of the Living Dead” and found inspiration for their first short, and many a filmgoer has crawled back to Romero’s clutches again and again to see what he has to offer. Zombie films are weird, in that they can truly showcase some interesting moral dilemmas, while at the same time they can show us some of the most graphic violence ever to grace the screen. I enjoyed this movie- it’s well made, it has something to say, and it looks fantastic- but there are a lot of people who wouldn’t be caught dead in a movie like this.
This is part of our 31 Nights of Thrills Series. Not all of the movies we review for this series will be strictly horror, but all will have something to do with the spirit of things spooky or scary. If you like those types of movies, be sure to check back throughout the month of October!
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