December 22, 2010

Day of the Dead (Review)

Day of the Dead (1985)

Director: George A. Romero

5 / 5 zedheads


Unequivocally, I love Day of the Dead. It is my favorite Romero zombie movie and, I think, his best zombie movie so far. While Day of the Dead was not well-received by all fans when it was first released, over time its classic qualities have become clearer. Compared to the comic book sensibilities of Dawn of the Dead, Day is bleaker, darker, more depressing, and gorier. As a result, it's Romero's most honest zombie film: one that puts satire aside to look at what happens when people reach the end of their ropes. Day is also an interesting film because it advanced one of the most interesting developments in the Romero zombie mythology: zombies that learn.
So tender it falls right off the bone.
Whereas Night of the Living Dead showed survivors fighting against the first wave of a zombie outbreak and Dawn of the Dead showed survivors fleeing society when the zombie invasion becomes insurmountable, Day of the Dead begins with a world already dead. On the surface, the zombies rule the day. Cities are empty except for the lackadaisical living corpses that populate the garbage-strewn streets and alleys. From above this dead world, a helicopter with four survivors descends into Fort Myers, Florida. Sarah (Lori Cardille) is a tough and somewhat cold civilian scientist, Miguel (Anthony Dileo Jr.) is a soldier on the verge of a nervous breakdown, John (Terry Alexander) is a hesitant helicopter pilot, and William (Jarlath Conroy) is an alcoholic communications operator trying to no avail to raise other survivors on the radio. When they find nothing but zombies in the city, they return to an underground bunker where other scientists, under the theoretical protection of the US army, are still attempting in vain to comprehend the zombie epidemic.
Paging Dr. Tongue. Paging Dr. Tongue.
Underground, the environment is tense; everyone is at everyone else's throats. The soldiers are bored and frustrated and resorting to juvenile outbursts. Pvt. Steel (Gary Howard Klar) and Pvt. Rickles (Ralph Marrero), in particular, act like a couple of misogynistic hyenas, yet the culture of tension and claustrophobia is going to get a lot worse. With the death of the reining military leader, the violent and ignorant Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato) takes command. His arrogant demands for results from the civilian scientists despite their lack of resources brings him into conflict with Lori as well as Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty), aka "Dr. Frankenstein." "Frankenstein" is so-named because of his bizarre and grisly experiments on the zombies he keeps in underground caverns. Logan has brilliantly located the neurological source of zombie behaviour (but not the origin of their reanimation). He believes the dead can be domesticated and trained to not eat the living as long as they are properly rewarded for good behaviour. He has a star pupil in "Bub," a zombie with a keen sense of human memory and and an extraordinary placidity (Howard Sherman).

Despite Logan's scientific gains, down in this concrete rabbit hole of a bunker, as they say in Wonderland, "We're all mad here." Even Dr. Logan is clearly at a mental breaking point. The overall anger, frustration, fatigue, and exhaustion soon comes to a violent head. People are crossed, people die, and only through this breakdown in human cooperation are the zombies permitted to breach the underground bunker and tear the living apart with their hungry hands and flesh-rending teeth.

You're hired, kid. I like your guts!
For my money, Day of the Dead is what I always wanted to see in a zombie film. For one, I love to explore WHY and HOW zombies exist and evolve. Dr. Logan goes on at length explaining how zombies are just like humans except reduced to their primal functions. I eat up every second of Richard Liberty on screen. He's brilliant as a nuanced mad genius. It is for this reason that I am also in love with Bub. Bub represents an important step in George Romero's zombie films. By establishing that some zombies can learn and retain human traits, Romero's zombies become an even more potent metaphor for the human condition.
One way or another, I'm going to find you, going to getchyou-getchyou-getchyou
We cannot treat zombies as purely abject. When faced by the zombie of Night of the Living Dead, a person would be afraid and repulsed because they are facing something that was once alive but contains nothing of its former self in its violently corrupt and mutilated yet mobile body. This concept of the zombie forces us to confront an important reality: the things that make us unique and human can be easily erased. Zombies like Bub, however, force us to confront a new reality. Even worse than having our humanity erased, it's a far sadder and more horrific thing to retain a glimmer of what makes us human while zombie. Zombies that are completely un-human can be dispatched as "The Other." Zombies that retain glimmers of humanity force us to recognize that the zombie is not the other but, instead, a part of us.
Is it live, or is it Memorex?
Aside from the metaphorical aspects of Day, this film also contains some great performances. Yes, most of the characters are unlikable, but consider their situations. They're desperate, tired, angry, and scared. They will do unlikable things. The actors playing them, however, deliver strong performances, even if they're exaggerated. I've already said I love Richard Liberty, but Howard Sherman as Bub single-handily pushes this movie into another level. His zombie performance is one of the best, if not the very best, I've ever seen. Not since Karloff as Frankenstein's monster has an actor so immersed him or herself into makeup to breathe complex life into a monster. Without Bub, Day of the Dead would not be half as successful.

Rhodes went to the Dirty Harry school of conflict resolution.
Most people, however, love Bub. Instead, I often find myself defending Lori Cardille's performance as Sarah and Joe Pilato's performance as Captain Rhodes. At first, Sarah may seem one-dimensional: a "strong woman" stereotype who is too emotionally distant for other characters or the audience to like. I don't necessarily buy this pigeonholing of Sarah. Sarah is a tough woman who has her shit together, but inside she's not as confident. I see Lori Cardille delivering a lot of her subtle, tender performance with her face and her gestures. I know others feel they cannot connect with her, but I genuinely feel for Sarah and her struggles. She's a strong, silent type, but given her situation it wouldn't make sense for the movie to force too much audience-identification out of her. You don't have to "like" characters to enjoy them or care about them.

If Sarah is the strong, silent type, then Captain Rhodes is her antithesis. Needlessly loud, exaggerated, and almost farcical, Joe Pilato plays Captain Rhodes less like a man and more like a throbbing vein with a gun. He's over the top, but I think he's purposely over the top to contrast against Sarah's silent strength. Captain Rhodes fronts his power and strength through threats and preposterous verbal tirades. The connection between his name and the Colossus of Rhodes makes me think that Rhodes is trying to make himself out to be something of a human colossus, but you can tell from Pilato's performance that Rhodes is secretly more afraid than anyone. It's all a bluff and a cover. When he finally meets his end, that high-pitched scream of his is his true voice.

Insides belong inside! Insides belong inside!
I see many strong performances in this film, even if the characters are not completely likable. I also see many strong makeup and practical special effects in this film even if they are used to horrify and disgust the audience. Romero's zombies have never looked better. Keeping their now trademark blue pallor, the zombies have developed jutting teeth, jutting brows, and deep cheekbones. This doesn't look like natural decay, but it gives the zombies a fascinating and easily customizable look. Savini's zombie effects are as brilliant as his gore effects. In particular, the scene in which Miguel has his arm amputated after a zombie bite and then cauterized by a torch is completely harrowing. It could have been horrifying if the amputation and cauterization were done off screen, but by putting the trauma in your face with believable and well-executed effects, the sequences shock the audience out of their complacency if they dared to predict what happens if a character is bitten by a zombie. Combining the zombie makeup and individual gore gags, Day of the Dead also boasts one of the most amazing zombies ever on screen: Dr. Tongue. While he's only on screen for a moment, back lit by the sun with the film title in front of him, he represents an amazing achievement in zombie design, puppet effects, and overall horror.

This is your brain. This is your brain on....well....the table.
As you can tell, I love Day of the Dead. I know many people don't, but it's a film that I can watch over and over again. Its themes about humanity, its effects, its gore, its performances -- I can't fault them. They all make sense for the story being told. These are some of Romero's most memorable and strongest characters. They are contrasted against some of Romero's most memorable and unique zombies. Day of the Dead is simply a fantastic example of zombie cinema.

THE 12 DAYS OF ZOMBIE continues all this week with more reviews of zombie classics as I countdown to Christmas.