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Day of the Dead Review

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by Chris McEneany Oct 20, 2007

    Day of the Dead Review
    The Dead Walk!

    And in the third part of George A. Romero's seminal series of super-shockers they have lurched right across the globe, having consumed most of the cast of the first two films and changed the cinematic face of carnage forever. As usual, with such a well-known film that has had numerous releases over the years and been critically dissected by scholars and fans alike, no relevant write-up would be possible without a large number of spoilers. So, if you happen to be new to the movie, I would advise that you skip to the technical details right now.

    Holed-up in a huge underground bunker somewhere down towards the everglades are a disparate and bad-tempered gaggle of refugees, the remnants of a scientific research team working round the clock to find answers to the zombie-plague and their irritable, trigger-happy military back-up. If things were bleak in Night Of The Living Dead, they are considerably worse now. Cut off and isolated in yet another of Romero's paradise-cum-death-traps (akin to the farmhouse in part 1 and the shopping mall in part 2), the group desperately try to radio other possible survivors and even venture out in a helicopter to search up and down the coast for people not yet eaten or zombified. It seems a futile hope that they will encounter anybody else ... and, with growing unease, they must come to terms with the fact that they may well be the last normal human beings left - a situation made all the more severe because of the violently unpredictable state of mind of the self-appointed leader, Captain Rhodes (a great performance from Bono-look-alike Joe Pilato), whose savage megalomania threatens to destabilise the fragile détente existing between the two factions.

    Working under impossibly difficult conditions, scientist Sarah (Lori Cardille, whose father appeared as a newscaster in Night Of The Living Dead) has to cover up the increasingly erratic and grotesque experiments being conducted by Richard (The Crazies) Liberty's Dr. Logan. Nicknamed Dr. Frankenstein by the foul-mouthed soldiers, the forever blood-smeared boffin is using the guinea-pig zombies that the team have corralled in the huge and labyrinthine tunnels chiselled deep beneath the earth for some bone-chilling surgical tests to ascertain what makes them tick and what, most importantly, might stop them from wanting to eat us. The thing is, the mad doctor is getting overly fond of his living dead candidates and wasting valuable time boosting their intelligence levels and attempting to “remind” them of their former humanity, when the military just want a quicker way of getting rid of them. Compounding this issue is the fact that Frankenstein has his prized pet, called Bub, a zombie whose dormant soul has been rekindled by the affection showered upon him by the good doctor. Played tremendously beneath some hideously slobbering slack-jawed prosthetics by Howard Sherman, Bub is an absolute delight - a true pathetic, yet noble creation which the now-aptly monikered Frankenstein can educate, reward and cherish. Romero's ace-card is revealed here, our sympathies residing totally with the monster because it has apparently regained a personality and seems perfectly content with not trying to eat anybody. Even when the situation for a hot meal actually presents itself during the inevitable bloodbath-finale, he chooses to shamble the other way. Contrasted with the positively evil Rhodes, with whom Bub develops a deadly rivalry, Bub becomes the ironic hope for salvation and, incidentally, the movie's mascot. Romero's sympathies have always resided with the unfortunate zombies and he has painted the humans as being the real savages almost from day one. Let's face it, most of the bloody violence in Dawn is directed at the zombies and we actually can't wait to see them get their rotting mitts on some fresh meat come the finale. And if that is the case with Dawn, then we positively cheer when they catch up with the appallingly behaved remnants of humanity in the third instalment. Romero's statement about mankind simply not deserving to survive - or rather being totally incapable of surviving as a species - is just as prevalent as ever. But whereas even the bad-boy bikers who wreck everything at the end of Dawn aren't thoroughly reprehensible - they do, after all, have some semblance of group unity and a pretty outrageous sense of humour - the fools and bigots that blight the last sanctuary in Day have even fewer redeeming qualities. The soldiers may cling to some degree of organisation - duty-bound to snag and ferry zombies from the warren of tunnels beyond the bunker to the laboratories - but this is a devotion that is ultimately more to do with their delight at humiliating and hurting the undead rather than any tenuous link to obeying orders.

    “We don't have enough ammunition to shoot them all in the head. The time to have done that would have been at the beginning. No ... we let them overrun us. And they have, you know. We are in the minority now ... something like four-hundred-thousand to one by my calculation.”

    They may be good odds for any Greek, but that is cold comfort to our bunker-based buddies.

    Naturally, tensions rise and those with the weapons assume an over-zealous, almost fascist dictatorship, warning of executions if results that they can understand aren't made soon. Romero's screenplay paints the military in a very bad light - as a cluster of imbecilic Neanderthals spoiling for a fight and barely in control of their own men, let alone the mission that they were all supposed to working on together. Rhodes, himself, is revealed to be the biggest idiot of all. “Formulas ... equations ... a lot of fancy terms that don't mean a thing,” he accuses the scientists as he dismisses another weekly report that he is just incapable of understanding. The climax, as you would expect, culminates around the zombies finally breaching the bunker's defences and overrunning the place, as witnessed in both the first two films and the recent fourth instalment. In this respect, Romero appears to be pandering to the simple, well-known tactics that have worked so well before. And it is this very formulaic and overly familiar final act that somehow works against the film, instead emphasising that Day Of The Dead, in its firmly linear trajectory does nothing particularly new with the material of “us” against “them”. Ideas are set up marvellously throughout the film but then blown to bits once those gnarled hands start groping. Satire is no longer a component, but then nor is the terror of the first film, bar a few successfully accomplished stingers. All that we are left with, when it comes down to it, is yet another bunch of people scampering around and blasting zombies until they are each surrounded and torn apart. Ordinarily, I would have nothing against this. But coming from Romero, you just have to expect something more than a gory runaround by now.

    Of course, we must not be too harsh on the taboo-breaking writer/director because the failings of the third part are most certainly not of his own creation.

    By now it is common knowledge that Day Of The Dead is only a pale shadow of the original screenplay that Romero had written. The problems of budget and studio interference that he had managed to circumvent via tenacity, adaptability and sheer creative determination with the first two Dead films proved too huge an obstacle for him and his dedicated “family” of producers and crew to overcome this time around. Gone was the island-hopping of the original plot, gone were the trained army of zombie “Redcoats” and gone was the horrific Dr. Moreau-style experimentation and subsequent class war that was to have dominated the tale. His initial story “Anubis” - which formed the epic basis for the entire series - ended up being filtered, distilled and chopped down for this instalment, leaving the trilogy (as it was then, pre-Land Of The Dead) climaxing in a rather dismal manner that, whilst still brimming with bloody set-pieces and Romero's most incisive and cruel statement yet about how people react under pressure, alienated and disappointed many of the fans. Barring only a clutch of caricatured lines and a smattering of nostalgic references to Dawn (the ghostly little rendition of the famed Zombie Polka, actually called The Gonk, when a chastised zombies is left in a darkened “Naughty Corner” by Frankenstein, especially), the film is bereft of humour. No bad thing, really, considering the desperate plight of the protagonists, but when the cast is made up of so many downright un-likeable people, it is incredibly hard to care about any of them without even the slightest hint of brevity shining through their hard-bitten facades. Sarah, who is, ostensibly, our conduit into the story, is a miserable sap. Her lover, the stressed-out Miguel (Antone DiLeo) is on the verge of complete mental meltdown and is utterly devoid of any viewer-empathy. The soldiers are designed as pure villains, with Gary Klar's Steele and Pilato's Rhodes the only ones with any shred of three-dimensional character building. Ralph Merrero's fat giggle-boy Rickles is an out-and-out irritation, his face-shredding, finger-biting comeuppance the only time you don't mind seeing him onscreen. Even the goodies, as it were - Terry Alexander's Caribbean chopper pilot John, and Jarlath Conroy's ratty, bug-eyed radio-man McDermott - are hard to warm to. Wisely disappearing deeper into the gloomy interior of the bunker to their surreal paradise in a cluster of stored mobile-homes to avoid the grief from Rhodes and his men, they also cut themselves off from us too, and no amount of wisdom in laidback Jamaican patois can bring them any nearer. That essential camaraderie that made Dawn so damn effective is in such short supply that it is only the dead who seem able to get along.

    “We're getting to make this a habit, man ... pointing guns at one another.”

    For a long time it looked like Day Of The Dead wasn't even going to receive a theatrical outing in Britain, fuelling rumours that the movie was so grim and nasty that the BBFC had refused it a certificate. In the meantime, bootlegs were widely available and imported cassettes were doing the rounds with vigour. I first encountered the film on tape in this way, via one of Britain's most esteemed horror writers (who, incidentally, bears an uncanny resemblance to Liberty's Dr. Logan!), and was initially let down by what I viewed as a spectacularly small-scale production in the shadow of its huge and action-packed forbear. Over the years I have had a love/barely-tolerate relationship with the film, but there can be no mistaking that it is a production hard to dismiss. Although it had a huge opening weekend - more than making its money back - its popularity waned and the takings dropped off considerably. Dan O'Bannon's riotous “Psycho-billy” gorefest and unofficial sequel to Night (well, its original screenplay was by Romero associate John Russo), Return Of The Living Dead, also had a nasty knock-on effect since it came out at roughly the same time, with people opting for its bright and garish tongue-in-rotting-cheek humour over Day's downbeat cynicism. Home video saw its status regained but, even here, the movie splits the audience and the critics alike. Romero remains steadfast in his opinion that this is the best of the first three films, but I struggle to actually believe he means that. Having to strip your cherished script to the bone must hurt ... and the fact still remains that much of Romero's messages, or warnings, are only superficially scratched with this pared-down version, his themes of the need for solidarity and acceptance only paid lip service by a limited cast of foul-mouthed inhospitables. Certainly not the new-world order microcosm under conflict of the original draft.

    There is one huge difference between Day and its predecessors - no-one in this story actually becomes a zombie (I'm not counting the faceless brain of Major Cooper because we didn't know him to begin with. Or the reanimated head of SFX guru Greg Nicotero as hapless squaddie Johnson, for that matter.) Considering that Romero is at pains to explore the notion of the zombies evolving as time goes by, it seems strange that he doesn't use the contrasting effect of a human we thought we knew succumbing to the virus with Bub's excellent progression back towards humanity. But the essence of this story seems to rely totally on its protagonists' desperation not to become infected and to willingly bow out before that could ever happen, via suicide or mercy killing. Roger's plight in the prior movie was an element that allowed us to witness the sadness of bereavement, whereas Stephen's transformation was for pure shock value. Day does away with the literal change from human into ghoul, but is keen to play up the angle that the ghoul resides in a lot of the living anyway. Sarah's relationship with Miguel is a case in point. No matter how hard she tries to help him, he will throw her love and compassion back in her face, his own inner turmoil eating away at the emotions we hold dear as human beings as eagerly as a zombie chowing down on someone's neck. Although with his violent mood swings and ultimate acceptance of fate it could be argued that he is, in fact, the one transformation in the movie, albeit without the appetite for human flesh.

    “This is a great big, fourteen-mile long tombstone!

    There is a great deal to savour in the carcass of what survived from the original concept, though. The desperate hailing from Miguel over the bullhorn and the mournful wailing of the undead rising over the rotor-blades of a zombie-owned Florida wasteland; the callous stand-off between Sarah and Rhodes and then Rhodes and Steele when the Captain pulls a real gun on him; Logan scolding an unruly, table-tossing zombie; religious overtones taking on monolithic proportions etc - Romero's film is filled with quite unique moments. They may not be enough to save the whole thing from the depressing quagmire that it seems hell-bent on sinking into, but they do ensure that the filmmaker's trademarked skill at combining social commentary with gross-out splatter was still second to none. It is not hard to see the Romero's battered liberalism rising up in the guise of the vengeful Bub and, of course, it is this very plot strand that is the most remarkable. In a clever conceit, Romero actually makes Bub the hero of the movie and Howard Sherman must be applauded for giving heart and soul to a creature that is long dead and devoutly primal. His rebirth is touching and wondrous, yet ultimately terrifying. His intelligence and development, especially when Rhodes stares down the barrel of Bub's initially unloaded gun, spells out our eventual doom. The message seems to be that mankind is not so much being consumed, as being replaced. Even John alludes to such with his well-rehearsed theologising to Sarah and staunch determination that whatever new babies they can bring into the world should never be allowed to come down into the bunker to see all the records that have been stored there of the mad world that existed before.

    “He won't shoot Billy because he got no-one else who knows electronics. He won't shoot me ... because I'm his ride. He probably won't shoot Frankenstein 'cause the old Doc can talk him silly. But the rest of you? The rest of you better start worrying, don't you know ...”

    Romero's direction this time out is far more fluid, with more action and movement of the camera than he utilised in Dawn. Even the talky scenes have a fresher, vibrant feel, especially any with the volatile Rhodes stomping and snarling across the frame. The film can't help but feel confined and smaller in scope than Dawn - in part, this is intentional, though, with the setting of the underground silo used to evoke a sense of trapped claustrophobia - but coming after such a wild and flamboyant ride as Dawn, this still comes across as something of a backward step. The fabulously atmospheric actual location of the vast cave system, whilst exploited for a couple of crucial scenes, is not really tested to the full, though. The suspense that could have been cranked up with this Stygian Pit - even during the cat-and-mouse evasion sequence of humans turned loose in there - is allowed to peter out in favour of the intense character dissemination that is at the core of Romero's story. It is also worth mentioning that the scene of Rhodes making a break for it and leaving his cronies behind is actually quite unintentionally hilarious, with the devious slime-ball leaping onto one of the golf-carts and motoring away at something like 5 mph! Even the tottering zombies could have caught up with him, let alone his angry former-buddies left at the mercy of the gathering ghouls.

    “Come on, Johnny! We're counting on yer to fly us to the Promised Land!”

    Once again the maniacal Tom Savini supplied the outrageously gory special effects and, this time out, his offerings were profoundly effective and featured blood that was exactly the right shade and texture. Employing state-of-the-art animatronics to have severed heads with their eyes and mouths still open and working, terrific use of real actors with fake stomachs, brains and legs that could be opened and/or removed, and a couple of accomplished amputations, he fashioned the serious splatter that matters. Tasked this time with going deeper into the physiology of the living dead, Savini has lots of fun in Frankenstein's lab with slabs of raw viscera being slopped about and some casual drill-lobotomies to spice up the day. His zombies have been around for a fair bit of time and no longer look as though they have just undergone an undercoat of blue emulsion. I've always thought that Romero-rip-off-merchant Lucio Fulci unleashed the best walking corpses with his strenuous nasties “Zombie Flesheaters” and “The Beyond”, really grungy looking shambling piles of pus created by Gianetto De Rossi, but Savini does some great work here with studied depictions of blood-pooling, decomposition and all-round body rot. But it is with ripe scenes of sundry characters being torn apart that Day gains its infamy - heads being broken open or pulled away from their bodies, gaping bite wounds with stringy latex tissue and sinew stretching across the screen and the celebrated occasion when zombies grab someone like a chicken-bone and virtually make a wish with them as they pull in two different directions. The infamous parting line of “Choke on 'em!” being perhaps the single best remembered quote of the entire series also expertly sums up the callous defiance of the last human stand. Brit horror director Neil Marshall riffed very amusingly and with typical Anglo-humour on this line when poor Spoony realises he is about to go down the throat of a werewolf in the brazen Dog Soldiers. Yet, despite all the gore on display, I still come away from Day Of The Dead wishing that there had been more carnage.

    “Forget it, Billy-boy ... it's a dead place ...”

    Composer John Harrison had worked on the excellent EC Comics homage Creepshow for Romero and was also the man to find the music for the bloodshed here. Although certainly a more coherent and traditional score than was featured in Dawn Of The Dead, his music is very much of the time and, thus, dates the film quite badly. With synthesisers and drum-machines at his disposal, Harrison creates action cues that are rhythmic and catchy - the combined battles of Stavrakis' Torrez and Merrero's Rickles being the standout musical passage for me - and some terrifically moody tonal pieces to denote the desolation and despair of the veritable grave these last few refugees have made for themselves. The opening set-piece in the sun-drenched Fort Myers is particularly good, Harrison building up the story with epic, pulsing rhythm that rises to a pitch of pure dread, before segueing into the main title theme. This was the first time that Romero had not used any library tracks and it revealed more confidence on his part to trust a composer to find the musical voice of his story.

    “You want me to salute that pile of walking pus? Salute my ass!”

    “Your ignorance is exceeded only by your charm, Captain. How can we expect them to behave if we act barbarically ourselves?”

    Above all else, Day Of The Dead is an angry film. It may lack the nightmarish bite of the Night Of The Living Dead and the giddy satire of Dawn, but it takes a long sobering look at the scenario that Romero created in the first place and runs with it to its logical, though still genre-dictated, conclusion. If there was a solution to the zombie plague, the point being made here is that it would already be far too late to employ it. The team cling to their rather superfluous mission because it is virtually all they have left, the only reason to continue living and breathing. Only Frankenstein's obsessive quest has any possible gain, any light at the end of the tunnel. He may have a totally deluded sense of charity towards the enemy and a respect for his fellow man that is slipping away with every minute he spends in the company of the dead, but his single-minded drive to reach a level of understanding with the zombies is, however bizarrely it may sound, achieving results. But the anger that Romero's screenplay wrings from the situation is the dominant strand for me. Gone is the adrenalised hope of surviving one single night in an isolated farmhouse. Gone is the redneck hunting-party ideal of cook-outs and shoot-outs, rendering the zombie-epidemic as a veritable carnival. All that remains is the ignoble and soul-wrenching misery of being trapped in what is literally a hellhole with a cluster of humanity's utter dregs. With no obvious hero to root for and everyone simply looking out for their own skin, Romero's third Dead movie demands more of us than, perhaps, it offers in return. He wants us to think about such a downbeat and tragic scenario - perhaps not even essentially with the living dead as the threat, I suppose - and how we would deal with it once things have decayed to a point of completely no return. Yet, in doing so, he just recreates the same narrative structure that we have grown accustomed to with the previous outings - character build-up, claustrophobia, eventual zombie invasion - and strips away the hooks that we need to cling to. In many ways, Day is just a more depressing rerun of Dawn, even down to the eventual helicopter evacuation for a precarious and decidedly uncertain future. Only this time out, he rather naffly tacks on that beach-set shot of tranquillity that gives us nothing other than a humdrum image at odds with all that has gone before. At least with Dawn, the hopefulness of the ending is still clouded with ambiguity ... after all, Peter and Fran do not have much fuel left and we are not blinkered enough to believe that happy meadows lie just over the next hill. Here, the denouement is like an afterthought and I cannot believe Romero is anywhere near content with its actually quite corny epitaph. I mean an island would still end up being a trap, wouldn't it? Actually, a cool trick to have played would be to have had that cross-eyed cop from Dawn's dockyard sequence, the one who claimed he and his buddies (including a younger Joe Pilato) were trying “to make it to the islands” already there when our survivors arrive.

    Ultimately, Day Of The Dead proves anticlimactic, although it possesses an unnerving quality that enables it to linger in the mind long afterwards. The very fact that it is incomplete possibly adds to its power, making further viewings essential to provide tantalising little clues and notions to play out in our own minds. Thankfully, Day wasn't the end of George Romero's great zombie cycle but, despite the sheer fun and entertainment value of Land Of The Dead, the series still feels unresolved. And with Diary of The Dead still on the way (as of this writing, at least) it seems that Romero is going to keep on plugging away at his old Anubis story for some time to come ... which, as far as I am concerned, is no bad thing at all.

    Day Of The Dead, whatever my reservations, is still eminently worthwhile and another true milestone in the horror genre.