They are us.
– Dr Logan, Day of the Dead
A bare white room. Head lowered, Sarah sits slumped upon the tiled floor. She raises her head as John Harrison’s eerie synth score starts up. She takes in a calendar on the wall; rising, she stares at it with a strange, wistful smile on her face. It’s October; all the days in the month have been crossed off. As she reaches out to touch it, a number of hands – green, decayed – burst out from the wall, groping, clawing, reaching for her, and Sarah cries out as she spins violently away…
I adore George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead; it’s a film I can watch over and over again. The opening, though a dream, encapsulates its bleak, nightmarish character, setting us up for a movie which is as intelligent as it is gory, beautiful as it is nihilistic.
The film appeared in video shops when I was around nine or ten, and I distinctly recall seeing a large cardboard image stood up in our local video store of Joe Pilato’s character Rhodes pointing a gun at the viewer, whilst behind him loomed a host of mouldering zombies. Reviews of the time were – on the whole – negative; in fact, it was generally perceived as the weakest of the ‘Dead’ films, with critics pointing to a lack of sympathetic characters as a major problem. Yet, I like Sarah (Lori Cardille). I like John (Terry Alexander) and McDermott (Jarlath Conroy). I even have a soft spot for Dr Logan (Richard Liberty). They’re all fully fleshed-out characters, replete with differentiating views and approaches on to how to fix the horrific situation they are in, and this is what makes Day of the Dead such a beautiful, absorbing and thought-provoking movie: it’s less about the zombie, more about human behaviour and the ways we interact and react with each other, especially when under considerable stress and pressure.
Day of the Dead came out in 1985. It has a special place in my heart because it was one of the first horror films I watched as a kid; I smuggled it home from school along with the Betamax videocassette of Phantasm (both borrowed from a mate) and to this day they’re still two of my favourite movies. When I watched Day of the Dead for that very first time, I got a huge kick out of the make-up and gore effects. These days I pretty much love everything about it: the dialogue, characterisation, the mournful tone of alienation and despair, its grim, gritty feel and atmosphere. Originally it was intended to be Romero’s undead epic, but financial restraints meant he had to scale back the story, rewriting the script to fit the smaller budget. The result is an intimate movie that oozes paranoia and claustrophobia, generating a truly nightmarish air. Yet it’s the conflict that arises from the differing views, opinions and needs of the characters that makes Day of the Dead so special.
Personally, I couldn’t think of anything worse than being trapped underground with such a bunch of demented loons as Captain Rhodes and his gang; I’d probably take my chances with the walking dead outside. The scientists, or more specifically, Dr Logan (also known as Frankenstein), wants to control them. He carries out macabre experiments in his blood-soaked laboratory, much to the disgust of his colleagues. By manipulating the zombies’ behaviour, he hopes to lessen the threat and to ultimately condition them into doing what we want them to do – i.e. not to eat us. Central to this is the character Bub (beautifully played by Howard Sherman), a zombie who becomes Logan’s star pupil. There’s more than a touch of affection between the two, and Logan, despite the scepticism and hostility he receives from Rhodes and his men, makes genuine headway with Bub, as the zombie starts mirroring actions from his previous life as a human. But Bub is just one in a whole army of the dead – after all, the zombies outnumber humans 400,000 to one now – so are Logan’s experiments a waste of time and effort? Captain Rhodes thinks so, having taken up the reins as military leader from the deceased Major Cooper with a kind of dubious relish. Zombies are mere cannon fodder as far as he’s concerned; they need to be annihilated. He threatens the others with execution if they disobey his orders, thus establishing his own tiny, claustrophobic dictatorship.
A similarly unlikable character is Miguel (Anthony Dileo Jr), Sarah’s boyfriend. Stress has crumbled him, left him broken and pathetic. He’s taken to lashing out at anyone and everyone, including Sarah. Having lost a limb by the end, he decides his only option is to end it all, bringing the zombies down into the bunker for the spectacular, blood-spattered finale.
Sarah is central to the action; a pragmatist, she is torn between the views and opinions of the others. She understands what Dr Logan is trying to do, yet at the same time is only too aware of how futile his experiments are in the grand scheme of things. She can see what fear has done to the soldiers, seen how paranoid and self-destructive they have become, and slowly, very slowly, she is drawn to John’s vision, realising it might be her one and only salvation.
After a fight with Miguel, she runs off and finally comes to spend time with John and McDermott in their caravan in the bunker. The men have done their best to turn their simple abode into a paradise, complete with alcohol, string bulbs, and palm-tree backdrop. For the first time in the film Sarah begins to relax, and John is able to argue his case. John’s monologue is beautifully written; a desperate and embittered plea to embrace something, anything, to try and enjoy what time they have left no matter how dark their world has become. John’s is a simple resolution, yet a hopeful one – unfettered by hate, fear and the past, and the pointlessness of their current situation, he sees a chance to jump into the helicopter and to escape, to start again: “There’s plenty to do. Plenty to do, so long as there’s you and me and maybe some other people. We could start over, start fresh, get some babies….” It’s an appeal to seek happiness and beauty in their lives at a time when they have none, though arguably it could also be seen as amounting to nothing more than burying your head in the sand, of turning your back on everything that is going on in order to satisfy your own needs. In Day of the Dead, Romero offers no easy answers to the problems that beset his characters: as John tells Sarah: “That’s the trouble with the world, Sarah darlin’. People got different ideas concernin’ what they want out of life.”
Have I mentioned how much I love Tom Savini’s effects? From the title at the beginning, with Day of the Dead displayed at the bottom of the screen as a zombie stumbles toward the viewer, its tongue lolling out of its mouth, the sun burning behind it, to the final bloodbath in the bunker, the make-up and effects are lovingly conceived and executed. Logan’s laboratory is a gorehound’s paradise: a zombie brain still attached to its body twitches with eerie life; the guts of a zombie spill out on to the floor as it turns on its trolley; the eyes and mouth of a decapitated head move silently, emptily, gruesomely. Lurking in the background, in the shadows, Bub moans and shuffles and quietly rattles his chains. I love Private Torrez’s (Taso N. Stavrakis) death as the zombies press their fingers into his eyes, his screams turning impossibly high-pitched as his head comes away from his body. There’s also the scene where McDermott pushes the shovel into the mouth of a zombie and snaps off half its head, sending it skittering away down the tunnel and into the darkness; there’s a wonderful image of it immediately afterwards turned upside down, eyes flickering, the lights of the tunnel a lurid red behind it, bats flitting past as McDermott and Sarah make good their escape. It’s a brilliant shot, lit up like a masterwork of comic book art. And of course, there’s Rhodes’ demise; after being shot several times by Bub, he runs into a wall of the dead who then proceed to tear him in two, pulling his entrails out as he croaks “choke on ’em.”Again, it’s a wonderful piece of trickery and FX by Savini.
Despite the zombie-induced mayhem, mankind always lets itself down, pressing the self-destruct button time and time again in Romero’s movies. His outlook is gruesomely (and admirably) downbeat, encapsulated by Ben’s ironic death at the hands of a group of red-necks in the finale of first film Night of the Living Dead, and the fact that the survivors of Dawn of the Dead really have nowhere to go in their helicopter after fleeing the shopping mall. Day of the Dead is shot through with pessimism and moments of grim, dark irony, yet it is the only film of the three to offer a glimmer of hope, with Sarah, John and McDermott reaching their paradise island at the end. Yet even those final moments feel abstract and strange, as much a dream as the opening in that room with the hands coming out of the walls. It could almost be seen as the last thoughts tearing through Sarah’s mind as that zombie reaches out to grab her from inside the helicopter: a broken, empty fantasy.
Like all my favourite films, Day of the Dead puts a huge smile on my face every time I watch it. Which might seem strange considering its subject matter and content, but the characterisation, the dialogue, Tom Savini’s effects, the nightmarish qualities and feel of the film totally connect with me. Like the hands that burst from the wall at the beginning, it reaches out and grabs me and pulls me into its hugely entertaining, claustrophobic little world, where I’m more than happy to hang out. Plus, how could you not love a film which contains the immortal line: “I’m running this monkey farm now Frankenstein, and I wanna know… what the fuck you’re doing with my time!” If you haven’t already, check out Romero’s much misunderstood masterpiece.
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