DAY OF THE DEAD revisited
We are the monsters.
When last I saw DAY OF THE DEAD, it was late 1985 when the movie actually made its debut in the theatres. The half-viewings in the middle of the night on Starz while I fed or cradled my infant son or daughter don’t count. As any parent can tell you, raising an infant requires you to live in an altered state of consciousness, where like Tyler Durden, you are neither awake nor asleep, but a horrible melding of the worst qualities of both. “Oh, that’s nice. DAY OF THE DEAD. I’ll stop changing channels here…ZZZZZZ” and then I wake up after the baby stops crying and shuffle back upstairs not remembering what I saw in the phosphor dots (yes, I still watch a CRT) blazing across my insomniac-glazed eyeballs.
Much has been made of DAY OF THE DEAD being part of the “Reagan era of horror,” alongside THE THING and some other lesser-known lights like THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS (okay, I mostly made up that connection, but I’ve seen folks talk about that last one being an explicit political metaphor for consumption/oppression from above.) Anyways, paranoia, mistrust, fear and a bunker mentality are all evident here, though I can’t necessarily recall that from where I was standing as a kid just out of high school. I dug zombie movies. I watched them with my friends when we weren’t upstairs listening to Black Flag and X, playing Wizardry on his Apple II and the like. Hell, we used to talk about how our old high school (a massive concrete structure painted a horrible pale orange, though the school colors were blue and white, go figure) would be a good place to ride out a DAWN OF THE DEAD scenario. Needless to say, this was back when the only way to choose what you wanted to watch when you wanted to watch it was to go to the local video store (no Blockbuster, no Netflix, no nuthin’.)
I was vaguely aware that the US was under threat by the Evil Empire, but I figured that both sides were rational enough not to empty the silos at one another, so the whole bunker mentality didn’t do much for me. I had more important worries, y’see. So it’s a touch difficult for me to remember exactly how I reacted to DAY back upon first viewing. I do remember likening the Gore Escalation in DAY to the competition it faced from flicks like RE-ANIMATOR and RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD. But more on that later.
DAY is a really interesting movie for the simple fact that it’s the first of Romero’s zombie projects that does away with any sense of documentary air. That’s one of the things that made NIGHT so goddamn scary to me when I first watched it (even butchered and suffering through commercial insertions). There was the newscaster saying that the GODDAMN ZMOBIES WERE RIGHT GODDAMN THERE AND READY TO EAT. Because truth was received by way of UHF when I was a kid, so that was good enough for me. Hell, there’s the live remote feed of the posses shooting those luckless shamblers, so you had a real world setting for what was going on in that deserted farmhouse. It was anchored in reality. It was happening right now. Only the black and white barrier between cinematic and reality kept you from losing your mind with fear.
Of course, you didn’t have that in DAWN OF THE DEAD. The odd color saturation and film grain didn’t make things less real. It made them more real. This was how things looked on the TV news. Shaky film shots on 16mm with rush development and uneven available light was what the news was made out of back at the end of the 70s. That’s one of the things that I really love about film, even and particularly B-movies of the time. That film look and unobtrusive lighting gave those films a sense of place and time that has been all but lost in these days of color filters, digital edit bays and virtual sets. I don’t mean to beat the drum of “old stuff was better,” but it certainly comes across as more real. It wasn’t until something like BLAIR WITCH that you got a sense of documentary horror returning (which is being mined even today in CLOVERFIELD, and Romero’s upcoming DIARY OF THE DEAD, where that documentary imperative is explicit and central to the plot.)
DAWN OF THE DEAD, still had that sense, that this was a real event, a real catastrophe, that we were all pretty much doomed and what we were looking at onscreen had already happened. The mall was literally a microcosm of America, and not even trendy America, but mundane, sedate middle-America striving towards upper-middle-America. Our heroes get in and lock the Mall down and the hordes are outside trying to get it. There’s your political theme in a nutshell. In NIGHT, the zombies weren’t after stuff; they were after people. DAWN muddies the aims of the mindless zombies, ending with them filling the Mall in a mockery of consumer existence even beyond the grave.
But I’m off-track again, aren’t I? I’m here to talk about DAY OF THE DEAD. And to be sure, DAY was highly anticipated by horror junkies and even some legit film critics. DAWN had caused quite a stir, and NIGHT had bred its own legacy before that. I know that I was eagerly awaiting it, and had very little to go on, other than what I could scrounge from the pages of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND and FANGORIA (“The zombies are being domesticated”, “The whole earth is overrun”, etc.) No spoiler sites to spill all the beans; just the fan press.
In fact, I remember that anticipation more than my own original reaction to the movie itself. But that’s what horror movies are all about, yes?
I watched DAY again recently, mostly to gauge it against the largely negative reaction that the film has garnered since its original release. It wasn’t that DAY was hated, but that it disappointed, I guess. DAWN was a huge leap that was at the same time very true to the original. It’s hard to replicate that level of success.
And like I said earlier, the first thing that jumped out at me was the ejection of the documentary. Which I felt was pretty effective, because documentary is a sort of rational function, something that civilized folk engage in. And if there was one thing that most of the survivors in DAY were not, it was civilized. Things had fallen apart. It wasn’t in process. We’d passed endgame status. All that was left was for the zombies to take the last couple of pieces off the board. If they didn’t take themselves off first.
Which was one of my problems with DAY’s characters, actually, kind of the same problem I had with 28 DAYS LATER. If it wore a military uniform, it was bad. Whether it was simply psychotic or willing to allow evil to occur in the name of perpetuating a status quo, uniforms meant trouble. In that regard, DAY was a bit kinder perhaps to rank and file military (where the grunts who weren’t testosterone-driven monsters were ineffectual potheads), but still, it rang a little hollow. This was striking, after making fallen authority figures so central and essential to the core of DAWN. Granted, if they all got along and worked together to eliminate the zombie menace, you’d have had a much less interesting movie, but all the same, I felt it was taken too far.
But then finding real “good guys” in DAY is somewhat difficult. The scientist Sarah comes out as who we’re supposed to identify with – keeping her head in the midst of Everything Ending, and not selling out in order to do so. She’s doing the right thing, using her brains to try and figure a way out of the situation, and not succeeding. Whereas her scientific superior Dr. Logan is having great success rehabilitating zombie Bub. Of course, he’s sold out, as his success comes only when he’s able to give Bub what he wants, that being human flesh. He’s selling humanity to scientific research, one bite at a time. John the pilot and William the technician both start out as mercenaries, only in it to save themselves, and figuring that since their skills are needed, their lives and comfort are secure. Of course, when the time to make the final choice comes, they choose to sacrifice in order to save Sarah from the maniacal Captain Rhodes.
Bub is an interesting character, and one that troubled me for a long, long time. Romero’s zombies aren’t human. They don’t react to anything other than their uncanny hunger for human flesh. That’s all that drives them. Rain, shine, night, day, bullets, tanks, nothing (save fire, a story point from NIGHT long since forgotten) fazes them. They don’t have any sense of the world other than that they’re hungry. But not Bub. He responds to humans non-aggressively. He responds to music. He remembers things from his past life, albeit in a damaged and hopeless manner. Bub’s portrayal in the film reminds me of films I saw in psych class of severely retarded adults. And that’s troubling. It’s easy to gun down a pack of bloodthirsty ghouls. But when you’re looking at a single man, shown as being sick and not an immediate threat, that’s a different game altogether.
My recent viewing of DAY showed Bub as a compelling character. He’s really innocent, having been the victim of whatever it was that turned humanity into the walking dead. It wasn’t his fault. He’s just trying to make the best of the situation. There’s a moment where Bub figures out how to escape, fumbling with the chains on the wall and throwing the catch, and in that moment there’s genuine sympathy for him. And that sympathy is made even more intense when Bub finds the body of Dr. Logan, and eagerly tries to show the doctor his accomplishment of slipping his chains, only to find that the doctor is actually dead, having been killed by Captain Rhodes (after the revelation that Logan had been feeding dead soldiers to his subjects.) It’s a hard, hard thing to pull off sympathy for the inhuman. But Romero manages it wonderfully.
And in that moment, I got what Romero was doing. He’d said before, something along the lines of “the monsters are us, just everyday people,” when referring to the creatures in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Of course, you can easily turn that around to the humans being monstrous not only to the zombies (which happens in numerous occasions in DAWN and DAY, and LAND OF THE DEAD), but the humans being their own worst enemies. But for me, it was really about poor helpless Bub having a salute un-returned and finding no audience for his own little triumphs.
Interestingly, the gore in DAY is perhaps as bad as Romero ever got in terms of those Grand Guginol excesses. DAY OF THE DEAD has moments, but there’s nothing like the gruesome spectacle of Captain Rhodes being ripped in half while still alive, entrails and offal spewing from either section. I don’t know how much of it was in an effort to top his previous efforts, or to give Tom Savini a chance to really pile it on, but the unreality of the gore somehow made it less effective. There’s more grotesquery in DAY OF THE DEAD, but something like THE WILD BUNCH is actually harder to watch on my part. Maybe I’m just getting squeamish in my old age, or maybe the jokes aren’t quite as funny as they used to be.
But like I said, kids in 1985 had to get their kicks. And if Romero/Savini weren’t going to do it, then they’d just get ‘em from RE-ANIMATOR. Good lord, what kicks.