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Non-Review Review: Day of the Dead (1985)

Welcome to the m0vie blog’s zombie week! It’s a week of zombie-related movie discussions and reviews as we come up to Halloween, to celebrate the launch of Frank Darbont’s The Walking Dead on AMC on Halloween night. So be sure to check back all week, as we’ll be running posts on the living dead.

Day of the Dead is the third in Romero’s classic “dead” trilogy and perhaps the last film he produced that has been universally accepted. While he has, to date, produced three more zombie films (and there are those – including myself – who appreciate some of those to a greater or lesser degree), Day of the Dead is considered something of a closing note on Romero’s epic zombie apocalypse saga – perhaps the other three acting as appendices (with Land of the Dead an epilogue and Diary of the Dead a “reimagining”). Either way, it’s a strong little film which holds together relative well. It will never be iconic as the two earlier films produced – The Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead – but it still feels like a fitting companion piece.

He's got him undead to rights...

It’s somewhat jarring that the film seems simultaneously the most gory and violent, yet also the most optimistic of Romero’s works. Don’t get me wrong, there are still all manner or suggestions and innuendos about how violent and self-destructive we can be as a species – and the fact that, when push comes to shove, we’re probably not nice people – but there’s something morbidly upbeat about how Romero sells us the end of the world as we know it. Accepting that civilisation has fallen, Romero dares to wonder if there isn’t some sort of grotesque opportunity presenting itself to the survivors.

John, the somewhat relaxed helicopter pilot, mocks the attempts of the film’s protagonist to reclaim the world and restore everything they way it was. “What you’re doing is a waste of time, Sarah,” he advises here, “and time is all we got left, you know.” He suggests that they retreat to somewhere quiet and attempt to start again – to build from scratch rather that restoring all these obsolete social and bureaucratic institutions. Somehow the slate has been wiped clean for humanity – we have a second chance, if we’re smart enough to grab it instead of clinging hopelessly to outdated social constructs for comfort.

At the same time, Romero suggests that this zombie apocalypse is just the first stage in something. The group’s resident mad scientist, Doctor Logan, postulates that the zombies themselves are capable of learning. Hell, when we’re first introduced to the specimens contained in the bunker, we’re warned that they are afraid of Logan’s mad experiments (so mad he’s earned the nickname “Frankenstein” from the military soldiers at the base). “They’re learning,” the lead character observes. Although Logan’s hopes the creatures can be “domesticated” seems insane, the movie strongly suggests that the creatures are capable of becoming something more – that they can, in their own way, grow or evolve.

You know Scully, I was just thinking about Lazarus, Ed Wood, and those Tofurkey-eatin’ zombies. How come when people come back from the dead, they always wanna hurt the living?

Well, that’s because people can’t really come back from the dead, Mulder. I mean, ghosts and zombies are just projections of our own repressed cannibalistic and sexual fears and desires. They are who we fear that we are at heart. Just mindless automatons who can only kill and eat.

Party pooper. Well, I got a new theory. I say that when zombies try to eat people, that’s just the first stage. You see, they’ve just come back from being dead, so they’re gonna do all the things they missed from when they were alive. So first, they’re gonna eat. Then, they’re gonna drink. Then, they’re gonna dance and make love.

Oh, I see. So, it’s just that we never get to stay with them long enough to see the gentler side of the undead.

Exactly.

- Mulder and Scully, “Hollywood A.D.”, The X-Files

The lift was dead...

If the farmhouse from The Night of the Living Dead was the perfect place to explore the racial tensions of the sixties and the shopping mall from Dawn of the Dead was a fitting location to critique the reckless commercialism at the heart of American culture, the military bunker presented here is a great place for Romero to comment on the relationship between science and the military. This was the sort of underground structure that our parents probably imagined being herded into after some terrifying geo-political crisis took a turn for the worse. It’s the ultimate reflection on the “duck and cover” mentality, the idea that we could bury ourselves underground like an ostrich and just wait for the nuclear clouds or armageddon to blow over.

The wonderfully morbid setting – where smooth concrete wall is ready at any second to give way to jagged rock formations – is the perfect place for Romero to ponder the union between science and military application, a fitting theme for the Reagan years with Star Wars planning to put powerful weapons in orbit. It was the scientists who split the atom and the military brass who harnessed it for destructive power that led the country to build these bunkers, and it’s fitting they find themselves trapped there now. There’s a real sense of the doomsday clock ticking away (and our humanity with it). We know what happened the last time these sorts of people were confronted with a near impossible threat.

That's one way of getting ahead...

The scientists act vindicated here, suggesting that their cold and rational approach to the rising of the dead might have averted this disaster. When Rhodes, the military officer in charge of this operation, suggests that they simply shoot all the zombies in the head, he’s dismissed by Doctor Logan. “Time to have done that would have been in the beginning,” Logan explains, trying not to seem too self-righteous, “No, you let them overrun us. They have overrun us, you know. We’re in the minority now.” To the scientists, it was our humanity that doomed us – our inability to destroy the brains in the corpses of loved ones as they rose. Logically it’s our humanity that should be abandoned. Thankfully, the military goons on the base are just “inhuman” enough to abandon their morality and do these incredibly violent acts. Of course, you can probably guess going into the movie how successful this philosophical approach will be. It’s not necessarily the most complex theme that Romero has broached, and he forces it just a little bit – but it’s fascinating nonetheless.

Day of the Dead does have one advantage over its predecessors. It looks like it was actually made on a decent budget. In fairness, it is twenty-five years old, but it actually still looks quite okay. The opening sequences in a destroyed Miami illustrate just what Romero could have pulled off had he been allowed these resources from the start. The make-up and special effects have also improved, although I am not so easily convinced this is a good thing. It translates to buckets upon buckets of gore (particularly at the climax of the film. It’s interesting to hear Romero himself suggest that he is uncomfortable with that sort of graphic imagery, as the last twenty minutes of the film are just dripping with fake blood and guts.

The soundtrack is just so eighties. I actually prefer it to the awkward sounds of Dawn of the Dead, but it feels almost like a Jan Hammer knockoff. In fact, the entire movie’s score feels like it could have later been recycled to be used on a Miami Vice episode. The production is actually top notch for a b-movie, and Romero certainly deserves credit for pulling all together.

I love Day of the Dead. Maybe not quite as much as its two predecessors, but it’s a stunning little film. The movie can feel quite jarring at times, bouncing between a somewhat optimistic outlook (well, for the end of the world) and perhaps the franchise’s most explicit gore and violence. All in all, it’s a fitting conclusion to a well put together zombie trilogy.

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