Day of the Dead
out of ****
Day of the Dead, George Romero continues to make effective
commentary on the issues of the United States using the metaphor
of a gory zombie apocalypse. Having already tackled the issues
of the 1960s (civil rights, the Red Scare) and the 1970s (consumerism,
Vietnam), he turns his sights on the 1980s,
which was a decade of conflicting nations, strong military, a
deficit of cannibalistic proportions, and paranoid leaders of
nations screaming at each other at the tops of their lungs. As
are Romero’s previous Dead films, Day of the
Dead manages to be a clever parody, both funny and terrifying.
has stated that Day of the Dead is his best movie.
I would say that of all of his social commentaries, it is
probably the least, but that doesn’t keep it from being
a brilliant film. After all, the 60s and 70s
had major issues that were ripe for parody, as the public
was moved by racist hate and the need to shop all of their
savings away. With the Cold War coming to an end and race
tensions easing up, the 80s was
a little more difficult to comment on successfully, as most of
the major issues took place internally, behind closed doors
in rooms containing people in high authority. It was not
the public that had become zombified in the 1980s so much
as the leaders of the nations at odds with each other. Thus, Day
of the Dead
is less about society and more about politics.
a result, Romero has to give us a setting that is not as effective
or personal as the farmhouse of Night
of the Living Dead, or as stupendously epic as the shopping
mall of Dawn
of the Dead. Instead, we are given an underground facility
consisting of a small number of doctors and military men, who
constantly quarrel about how to survive against the walking dead
above them, who are still hungry for human flesh and by now outnumber
humans “four-hundred thousand to one,” by one character’s
calculation. The scientists and doctors want to find a way to
reverse the process of the dead coming back to life, but they
lack the recourses. The military want to simply “blow the
piss out of them all,” but they lack the man power. Thus,
we are given a tug of war against two different sides, and though
neither side can possibly win, no one is willing to admit that
they are wrong. This nonstop bickering makes for interesting conflict,
but we certainly miss watching zombies lumber through close-to-home
locations such as the shopping mall and the barricaded farmhouse.
This facility is a place that we simply cannot relate to, because
the closed doors of politics are not something that most of us
have ever seen.
characters are also less effective
than in the previous films. Because Romero is arguing that those
in authority in the 1980s were the main problem with the declining
society, he gives us caricatures representing viewpoints of different
leaders instead of real, human characters. Thus, it is difficult
to care for anyone on the level that we did with the people in
Night and Dawn. Leading the military is Captain
Rhodes (Joseph Pilato), who considers himself in charge and runs
the facility like a dictatorship. Sarah (Lori Cardille) and Dr.
Logan (Richard Liberty) make up the core of the scientists, and
latter has trained a zombie named Bub (Howard Sherman) who has
been taught not to devour human flesh. Bub follows Logan’s
orders like a confused puppy, and the scientists are thrilled
at his progress. Rhodes and his men are not so amused.
of the Dead consists mostly of scenes featuring these characters
as they scream at each other because of their conflict of interest.
Indeed, there is so much screaming movie from characters who we
feel little for that often, the movie is difficult to watch. This
is not a flaw, however, but Romero’s point: The 1980s was
a decade in which no one in a leadership role could agree on anything,
and they therefore got in screaming and fighting matches as the
nations painfully looked on. As they continued to bicker and complain,
they became closed off and suffocating in their little rooms,
as Rhodes and the others do in their underground facility. If
we never connect with any of the characters in Day of the
Dead, we know exactly where Romero is going with them.
group exists that has a different approach to the plague altogether.
They are John the Jamaican helicopter pilot (Terry Alexander)
and Irish radio-man William (Jarlath Conroy). Their solution to
the problem is to get fly to some deserted island and begin recreating
civilization in a zombie-free environment, and if that sounds
like a good idea to the viewer, it doesn’t go over well
with Sarah, Rhodes, or the others. John also offers a theory concerning
why the dead are returning that is as good as any other we’ve
heard thus far in the series: “We're being punished by the
Creator. He visited a curse on us. Maybe He didn't want to see
us blow ourselves up, put a big hole in the sky. Maybe He just
wanted to show us He's still the Boss Man. Maybe He figured we
were getting too big for our britches, trying to figure His shit
out.” That such insight is given to a Jamaican and an Irish
man demonstrates Romero’s continuing sympathy towards immigration
in America, and John and William are the only characters in the
film to ever emerge as real people.
be fair, the limitations in Day of the Dead rest on the
issues of the decade that it represents, not on George Romero’s
filmmaking abilities, and that’s why we forgive him. Romero
still gives Day everything that he has as an artist and
social commentator, and the efforts pay off to create film just
as thoughtful as his previous efforts, if not as enjoyable. Look
carefully at Rhodes, and you may realize that he bears a certain
resemblance to the United States President of 1985. Also note
that his eventual fate is similar to that President’s most
famous acting role (“Where’s the rest of me?”).
In addition, Romero scatters Day with clever images and
ideas that indicate the failure of Reaganomics, such as the countless
dollars bills blowing away in the wind. It is also interesting
to note that Bub, the domesticated zombie, becomes more resourceful
than his captors. The point: As nation’s leaders continued
to argue and complain, and problems of the world began to take
on lives and intelligences of their own, and this is a chilling
and perceptive prophecy of later conflicts in the Middle East
throughout the nineties.
from Bub, the zombies themselves
are limited mainly to the opening scenes and the climax, but they
are more hideous looking than they have ever been. Puss oozes
from their rotting bodies, and most are missing appendages as
they shuffle about, hunting for living persons to devour. As in
Dawn of the Dead, Romero attempts to give each zombie
individual characteristics, to show that all walks of life in
American are affected by its ever-increasing depravity. We are
given chef-zombies, farmer-zombies, football player-zombies, clown-zombies,
bride-zombies, construction-worker zombies, and (in what I suspect
is a subtle attack on the many cannibal, copycat films from Italy
that followed after Dawn of the Dead) zombies that stumble
out of movie houses. The makeup from Tom Savini has never been
more effective than it is here, nor as socially relevant.
the end of the film, we realize that sans two or three characters,
everyone in Day of the Dead have been driven quite mad,
because they have succumbed to hatred and their closed in environment.
As in all of Romero’s Dead films, the characters
end up shooting at each other as the dead break in and begin to
munch on their flesh. These final scenes stress the main thesis
of Romero’s entire Dead saga: that our worst enemies
are really each other. The result is a film which, like its predecessors,
challenges the American system and offers insight to a world whose
leaders have lost touch with reality. Perhaps Romero considers
this his best film because of the extra thought that he had to
put into the parody of a decade whose major problems were more
difficult to pinpoint. If this is the case, then Romero has never
been cleverer than he is in Day of the Dead.
here to continue on to my review of Night of the Living
Dead (1990 remake).
here to read my review of Dawn of the Dead.
here to read my review of Night of the Living Dead.
Lori Cardille: Sarah
Terry Alexander: John
Joseph Pilato: Capt. Rhodes
Richard Liberty: Dr. Logan
Jarlath Conroy: William
Howard Sherman: Bub
G. Howard Klar: Pvt. Steel
A Laurel Films production.
Written and directed by George A. Romero. No M.P.A.A. rating (contains
graphic gore, language, and sexual talk). Running time: 102 minutes.
Original United States theatrical release date: July 3, 1985.