Review of the Dead - Day of the Dead (1985)
When George Romero talks about his original Dead trilogy, I’m going to paraphrase since I can’t find the actual quote, he usually says that while everyone generally likes Dawn…only the true fans like his favorite…Day of the Dead. As I said with Dawn, yes, I’ve seen all the Romero films before but looking at Dawn through a reviewer’s eyes brought new things to light for me and the focus of the film shifted for me from being less of a horror movie and one that put me as a viewer into a state of existential depression. So while I’d seen Day of the Dead a few times prior to this review, I always felt it was over the top…and while I really didn’t have much bad to say about it, I did end up feeling like it was the lesser of the three films. What’s my opinion now? Well, it all boils down to one word:
Day of the Dead is about the military unhinged. It’s about science unhinged. Nearly every character in some way is unhinged (except for John and Billy-Boy). Romero himself says it’s about a lack of trust in institutions and that is certainly present. But like Dawn, the most frightening aspect of the film is that here we are, over 30 years later, and we failed to see what George was telling, nay, warning us of…because it’s all right there in the headlines we see today.
Before we do any deep diving though, yup, you guessed it, a paragraph of a plot synopsis with as little spoilers as possible. If we follow Romero’s chronology that Night was the onset and Dawn happens just a few days after that, then he says Day is a few weeks to maybe a month or two after Dawn. With the film’s opening of a helicopter landing in a seemingly abandoned city…only to find that the city is actually full of zombies (and one alligator)…it’s clear that the living are in the minority. Finding no one, the helicopter returns to its base, a missile silo that has a system of caves running right next to it. Here we find an uneasy alliance between a military garrison and a cadre of scientists studying the outbreak looking for anything useful: the cause, a weapon, a cure…anything. There is a third faction, consisting of only John and Billy-Boy…John being the helicopter pilot and Billy-Boy being an electrician that’s keeping everything running, but they try to remain as neutral as possible…knowing that they’re the only two indispensable people there. The plot here isn’t overly complicated. There is no grand goal to reach for, no far-away objective…it is simply to survive in a world where humans are the minority and the humans that are left are unraveling as rapidly as their prospects for survival.
Let’s start off with the military…shown here in a relatively bullying fashion. They want to control everything and lay claim to any and all resources. Their only interest in what the scientists are doing is if it can produce a weapon to purge the undead and allow them to retake the country…otherwise, those people and their science are nothing but dead weight. Now, relating this to my day job, I can tell you that Romero was once again as prophetic as always…and yes, it’s just as equally depressing. Let’s start with that first thing: wanting any and all resources. At some point, it’s worth your while to take a look at any federal budget in the past few years and compare the United States’ military spending compared to ALL other agencies. To call it lopsided is a MASSIVE understatement. Even with the sequestration measures that have gone through, I have personally sat beside base commanders that have bemoaned the cut in their funding because now they couldn’t hire landscapers to keep the base looking maintained. Let me illustrate this in terms of the FY16 budget and using the two factions involved: for the military, there was in excess of $600 billion spent while science agencies only saw approximately $31 billion. That’s a pretty goddamn huge gulf…but you also have to consider how many ways that money has to be divided. That $600 billion gets divided 6 ways: Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, National Guard and Coast Guard while $30 billion has to be shared across many more agencies: the USDA, NOAA, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Department of Education, Department of Energy, the CDC, the FDA, the Smithsonian, NASA, National Institutes for Health (NIH), State Department Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, the EPA, the President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy…AND MORE. It boils down to science is afforded a minute fraction to be spread over at least double the agencies. Now, to be fair, I’m certainly not claiming that the science portion of the federal budget needs to be equal with or exceed the military budget…but to hear these guys bitch and moan about some tiny funding cuts while pretty much any and every politician, regardless of party, never wants to be seen making those cuts all the while being so very happy to cut any sort of scientific budget…and you start to see the problem here. I don’t want to put words in Romero’s mouth…as much as I was expecting a critique on our fetishized view of the military…it’s not there. But it’s clear that he WAS dialed in on the ever increasing military spending that certainly ramped up in the Reagan years and has never slowed down since…at the expense of other, equally vital scientific programs.
Granted, our scientists aren’t exactly without fault themselves. As the old saying goes, it only takes one bad apple to spoil the bunch…and that’s very true here. You see, this cadre of scientists is led by Dr. Logan, or as he’s referred to by practically everyone else, Frankenstein. You see, Logan is quite mad...although the depths of his depravity aren’t really unearthed until toward the close of the second act of the film. In his experiments on the undead and the…ahem…freshly dead, there’s more than just a glimpse of Dr. Mengele…and that’s what falls under Romero’s microscope here: are the findings from science worth it if they’re achieved without any ethics? One could just as easily use Romero’s argument presented here against the more timely problem of animal testing or you could fast forward to today and argue a similar case with the Big Pharma and health insurance companies of today. Are the advancements we’ve made in medicine worth it when the profit margins of the greedy dictate that such pills and procedures are so expensive as to be practically unattainable?
Now, the remaining scientists, Foster and Sarah, we’re never really given much insight as to what they’re working on exactly…although it appears to parallel Logan’s to some degree…just without all the butchery…but it’s slow going. And that brings up a third message from Romero that involves both parties: just because there are no immediate results doesn’t mean science is worthless. Sgt. Rhodes, our top military officer in this underground refuge, is very quick to say (and often) that his patience with the scientists under his care is running out…as if that’s going to accelerate anything. Science that is rushed or forced to suit any particular purpose can end up being at best incomplete and at worst a complete fabrication presented under the guise of fact. [The biggest current violators of this are climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers. - Ed.] And no matter where you are on the political spectrum, all of us can point to an instance where we feel this is occurring. I could rant further, but let’s keep the focus on the movie. What I’m getting at here is that Romero once again bull’s-eyes yet another issue we find ourselves wrestling with today.
If we pull back and look at Night, Dawn and Day as a trilogy…as Romero intended them to be…we’d be in error if we expected them to follow the usual track that trilogies take: the first film introduces the world, the second film shows things getting bleak for our heroes and the final film sees our heroes triumph over said bleakness brought into play in the second film. Romero gives us something different. First of all, we’re given no consistent heroes. Well…aside from the fact that we can count on the black guy in any of these films to be probably the most centered character in their respective film and, in two out of three films, actually makes it to the closing credits…something that modern day horror movies still have trouble doing. We do see links though: in Dawn, we see the line of rednecks with guns approaching a farmhouse…not unlike the one we see in Night and in Day we given both a line, “All the shopping malls are closed” and a musical cue that point directly to Dawn. But the path we’re taken down in these films is ever downward…the situation just keeps getting worse and worse until we come to Day, which many fans agree is Romero’s darkest film to this point…and is far more cynical (perhaps even nihilistic) than any of the others. While reviewing this film, I found myself wrapped up in it in such a way that by the end of my viewing, I simply wanted to cry. Not because of any of the gore I’d seen on screen…which, by the way, certainly is a crown jewel in Tom Savini’s cap, the only negative is that toward the end of the film we once again start to see the blue zombies from Dawn again…but because of the bleak outlook on humanity…and the issues that he highlights just haven’t gone away, but have gotten worse, in the 30 years since the release of the film. Like the other films of the series, all of the issues remain relevant…but the incessant dark tone of the film with little to nothing in regards to ANY kind of relief can just tear you to shreds…as it did me.
Then there’s Bub. Maybe, in some ways, he can be seen as comic relief…after all, he’s a zombie that Dr. Logan is trying to domesticate…as we’re shown throughout the film that Bub is able to recall some higher functions, such as the use of a shaving razor, a tape recorder playing music and the use of a gun. And that’s just it…while he seems comedic on the surface, Bub is probably the single most dangerous zombie in the film: A zombie that can learn. At this point in Romero’s films, they’re just a mass of humanity…a blunt instrument, a wave of flesh eaters that can be kept at bay by simple things…doorknobs for example. But a zombie that uses tools? A zombie that can shoot its intended prey before setting upon it to devour the unlucky sap? That would be truly frightening…which of course, George certainly couldn’t pass up the chance to delve into this more in later films. On this topic, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a proper tip of the hat to Sherman Howard for the brilliant performance that brings Bub to life in such a way that to this day, any zombie fan can recognize Bub for who and what he is.
My own connection to Day of the Dead comes from the fact that it’s the first horror movie that stands out in my head that I was aware of…and extremely creeped out by just by its movie poster. Given the proximity of the town I grew up in to Pittsburgh, it’s fair to say that we had to have the movie in theaters (or in my case, I recall it being shown at the local drive-in) in the early part of its theatrical run. I wouldn’t really sit and watch the film until college and a couple of times afterward…looking at it more as a zombie movie than for its social commentary. And it’s in that frame of reference that the majority opinion arises that the film is the lesser of the trilogy. Having watched the film with an eye to that commentary…as well as taking into consideration the commentary in place within the previous films…it’s hard to present a case where I could put any one film over the other. I’ll confess that Night remains my favorite…simply for the gut punch of an ending. Dawn and Day have impactful commentary, but each concludes with at least someone getting away. And since we’re talking about Day…thank heavens it DOES have a relatively happy ending. [Or does it? – Ed.] Because as George’s darkest film in the series to this point, to end it with a gut-punch like Night would have been too much. Instead of crying, I probably would’ve reached for a razor blade! If you’ve yet to see it and consider yourself a fan of the zombie genre, you need to seek out and watch this film. If you’ve seen it before but find it not to be as good as Romero’s other films in this first trilogy, do yourself a favor and give it another chance with a fresh set of eyes focused more on the commentary. Hopefully it will do the same for you as it did me, elevate the work and allow you to once again consider a work carefully put together by a master.
One trilogy down! On to the next…but is Land of the Dead the first of a new set of stories…or the last of the old set?