When George Romero’s Day of the Dead was first released, it became sort of a national pastime to piss all over the movie. Critics hated it and fans were turned off, but in time, the film garnered quite a following. I personally think it ranks right up there with both it’s predecessors, Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead.
Day takes place years after the great zombie apocalypse. Tensions are running high in an underground military installation where some scientists led by Sarah (Lori Cardille) try in vain to find out what makes zombies tick while the Army boys led by Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato) just want to shoot the undead bastards. Meanwhile, the crazed scientist “Doctor Frankenstein” (Richard Liberty) has an astonishing breakthrough with a zombie named Bub (Howard Sherman) and manages to make him docile. (“He doesn’t see us as lunch!”) The shit hits the fan when the zombies break into the compound and belly up to the All You Can Eat Human Buffet.
Critics savaged this film mostly because it lacks the social commentary that Dawn was seeped in. With Day, Romero is trying to scare us more than anything else. And scare us he does. There are two great jump scares at the beginning and end of the film that perfectly bookend the movie. Dawn of the Dead didn’t have flat out scares. That film was fun and colorful. Day of the Dead is one long dark nightmare.
I love how Romero perfectly captures the way the world would look once the undead took over. In an early scene we see the empty streets of
Likewise the characters all act how normal humans would in the same situation: like complete assholes. A lot of people bitch about this movie because most everyone just yells and screams at each other. Let me tell you something folks, if you were trapped underground with shitty supplies and unreasonable rations with millions of zombies knocking at your door, you’d act pretty pissed off too.
Speaking of pissed off, let’s talk about Captain Rhodes. Joe Pilato gives what is hands the best fucking performance ever given by a human being in the history of acting. Whenever someone asks who gave the best performance ever, people usually say shit like Humphrey Bogart in
Who won the Academy Award in ’85? William Hurt? Fuck that noise. Let me ask you this, did Hurt ever say the line, “You’ve given us a mouthful of Greek salad!”? Or “This ain’t a goddamn field trip, this is a fucking war!”? Or “I’m running this monkey farm now Frankenstein!”? Or “Is this the shit that’s supposed to knock our socks off?” Or “That’s right, go ahead and run you fucking lunatics!” Didn’t think so. Pilato was robbed; plain and simple.
I think what endears me about Captain Rhodes the most is that for all of his arrogance, I could sympathize with him. While the other characters make him out to be an asshole he’s actually the most practical one in the bunch. Granted, he had a screw loose but he was just looking out for his men and trying to protect them from the cockamamie hair-brained schemes of the scientists whose reckless zombie experiments threatened their well-being.
What makes the film memorable though is it’s introspectiveness. It is by far the most thought-provoking of all the Dead films. While Romero capped the existentialism of Dawn with “When there is no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the earth!”, he instead gives the Jamaican guy (Terry Alexander) a thoughtful soliloquy on why God is punishing the living. Frankenstein also gives us his spiritual insights while trying to domesticate the zombies: “They must be tricked into being good little girls and boys… the same way we were tricked.” Little touches like that makes Day resonate a bit more than the other films in the series.
That and the special effects are fucking amazing. Once again Tom Savani has given us some of the best effects ever devised. Like the scenes in Frankenstein’s lab where we see a zombie whose guts spill out onto the floor as well as a zombie who is nothing more than a body and a brainstem. We also get some juicy zombie bites, head shots, arm hacking, and a great HALF of a decapitation too. The finale is the end-all-be-all of gore cinema. One guy gets it when a zombie puts it’s fingers in his eyeholes like a bowling ball and rip his head off. Another guy gets his face ripped into starting at the eyelids. Then of course there is the scene of total disembowelment that is the standard to which all other gut-munching scenes should be measured.
The character of Bub is what gives the movie it’s soul. The humans in the film are mostly despicable. They yell at each other, argue, bitch and moan and fail to cooperate against a greater evil. Even though Bub is a zombie, he is by far the most human character in the movie (although the Jamaican guy seems pretty level-headed most of the time). Shit like that is what makes this misunderstood masterpiece stand the test of time.
Day of the Dead ranks Number 4 on The Video Vacuum Top Ten Films of 1985 List, sandwiched in between Re-Animator and Commando.
<Tomorrow’s Horror Franchise Movie: The Evil Dead>