Five Reasons to Love Day of the Dead
by Jeff Kirschner
Confession time: When I first saw George A. Romero’s 1985 Day of the Dead, his third entry in his Living Dead series, I loathed it. A little context is necessary for such a strong statement. When I was young, I was pretty much afraid, not just of my own shadow, but also my shadow’s shadow. Hence, I hated horror films. But from a very young age, I loved cinema – just not horror. So when all my friends went to the mall’s cinema 20- strong to see A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, I whiled away the 93-minutes in the food court, eating my value burger and reading then rereading the menus.
In my second year of university, I took a film studies course. Day of the Dead was on the syllabus. I had yet (nor wanted) to see Night of the Living Dead nor Dawn of the Dead, so this was my first introduction to the Romeroverse. And after that initial viewing, I naively surmised that it was the worst film I had ever seen. What I learned later was that the version that was shown in that 500-seat lecture hall was heavily truncated, shorn off all of Tom Savini’s incredible gore gags.
But my how times change. I may have gotten into horror much later in life than most, but I can honestly say that horror now is my life. Horror is my favorite genre, horror paraphernalia fill my apartment, horror-themed tattoos cover my body, and horror is the subject I spend most of my time thinking about, writing about and discussing. And Day of the Dead, far from being the worst film ever, is my favorite of the Dead films (and incidentally, Romero’s favorite too.) What follows are five reasons why I love Day of the Dead.
5.) The Stakes
Day of the Dead begins with a small group heading out via helicopter to find if somebody, anybody, is still alive and unaffected by the zombie virus. No one answers the call. The streets are well and truly deserted save for some spiders, an alligator and legions of the undead. Currency is meaningless as evidenced by the dollar bills flying around as debris along with the crumpled newspapers. The only vestiges of humanity are a small group of civilians, soldiers and scientists living in a fortified underground Florida bunker, sheltered from the hordes of restless zombies clawing at the fences and desperate to get in. The civilians and the soldiers are at loggerheads and nobody is very optimistic about the future (save for one whom we’ll get to later.) Are these few the last remaining survivors? The soldiers had to have received orders from someone, and there is speculation of similar bunkers in other states, but for all intents and purposes, this is it. The zombies have taken over and humanity has lost.
The futility of the situation isn’t lost on anybody, but perhaps is most keenly felt by Miguel, an ostensibly cowardly soldier who’s suffering from a serious case of PTSD. The man is collapsing emotionally, and his instability threatens the few survivors who remain. But what is the right thing to do? Put an end to him in the interests of self-survival as the soldiers wish? Or to do as the civilians want which is to protect and assist him, as it’s the human thing to do? In a world where humanity is literally represented by perhaps a dozen individuals, is humanity best served by compassion or by the natural instinct for self-survival. Romero asks the question and then allows for the audience to decide the answer.
Joe Pilato plays Captain Rhodes, the leader of the soldiers who has replaced the departed Major Cooper. He is a hot-headed, racist, alpha-male blowhard whose disposition permeates his ranks, including his men Steel and Rickles. He’s a little too enamored of his power and has neither patience nor respect for the intellectual scientists. His attitude can best be summed up as “my way or the highway”, or rather “my way or a bullet in the brain”.
Upon first viewing, I found Rhodes to be the least commendable aspect of the film. His bluster and over-the-top machismo style of acting seemed laughable, especially as he’s uttering lines such as “I’m running this monkey farm now…” and “All you’ve given us is a mouthful of Greek salad.” But as my estimation of the film grew, so too did my appreciation for Pilato as Rhodes. His acting is a perfect counterpoint to the cool-headed scientist Sarah, played by Lori Cardille. He may represent the worst that humanity has to offer, but he’s the one with the authority.
But is Rhodes really that bad? He’s a soldier, and it’s his men that he witnesses dying one by one, sacrificed for reasons unfathomable to him. No one is suggesting that Rhodes is a hero. His cowardly and self-centered actions near the end of the film certainly contradict any heroism on Rhodes’ part. But he’s not as cut-and-dried villainous as he may initially appear to be.
3.) The Gore
Night of the Living Dead was shocking in 1968 for its grimness and brief flashes of gore. Dawn of the Dead ten years later upped the ante with some incredible zombie kills. But its Dawn of the Dead where Romero and Savini go all-out with a sanguine tour de force. Day of the Dead is one deliciously gory film.
Scenes such as a zombie getting up from a table and spilling his innards like a dumped-out bowl of raspberry jello, a zombie’s head getting cleaved in half with a shovel, and soldier Johnson’s re-animated severed head are just the tip of the unsavory offerings on display. The final act is a gorehound’s delight and may arguably represent Savini’s best work. Zombie’s tearing soldier Torrez’s head off and ripping away Rickles’ face are incredible, but even those startling scenes pale next to Rhode’s last stand when The soldier is descended upon by dozens of the living dead. They tear him in half, dragging his lower extremities away while his insides become his outsides. One of the best gore scenes in horror history.
One of the scientists is a seemingly harmless eccentric named Logan, played wonderfully by Richard Liberty. He’s dubbed “Frankenstein” by everyone else because he toils in a lab experimenting on specimens – captured and corralled zombies that are kept in the deepest recesses of the bunker. Logan is the only one completely convinced of the integrity and imperative of his work. Clad in his blood-spattered lab coat and scrubs, Logan plugs away, trying to discover what it is that makes the zombies tick. Sometimes that involves removing the organs of one zombie; other times it requires rendering another to just a brain and a body.
But there’s something haughty and hubristic about the good doctor, and it turns out that his experimentation is not completely without moral compromise. In the interest of science and “the greater good”, Logan isn’t just experimenting on those long undead. And really, there’s something disquietly Joseph Mengele about his experiments on the poor, captured undead chained by the neck to his laboratory walls.
There is not one zombie in the entire canon of zombie films more memorable, and for that matter, more human, than Howard Sherman’s Bub. Without uttering so much as a word, Sherman gives the single best performance in the film.
Logan’s ultimate goal is not to reverse the zombification process, but rather to condition, domesticate and control zombies, first by examining them using a sort of Cartesian process, and then by training them through Pavlovian respondent conditioning. And his star pupil is Bub.
Logan gives objects of resonance to Bub and then takes them away. He’s interested in how Bub handles and responds to those objects, which include a razor, a toothbrush and a copy of Steven King’s Salem’s Lot. Bub appears domesticated and docile, and even seems to recognize his reflection in the mirror. But Bub is also a character imbued with pathos, and he just may be the only fully-sympathetic character in the entire movie. The look of amazement and wonder on Bub’s face as he’s allowed to listen to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” is heartbreaking, but is rendered all the more affecting by the crestfallen look when the music is taken away from him. But what’s even more tragic is the fact that Bub is successfully domesticated (although his reward for good behavior is indeed suspect.) As the film ends, Bub is left alone in the bunker; his “father” now deceased, the only civilized being amongst a group of savages.