Romero Retrospective: Day of the Dead

Bonsoir!  A brief furlough in Western Japan (see my previous post) has delayed this next installment of my Romero Retrospective series, but here it is ladies and gentlemen: my humble thoughts on the third cinematic incarnation of George A. Romero’s Dead series, Day of the Dead (1985).

The Dead Walk!

The Good

While perhaps not considered the capstone of Romero’s works taking up the subject of the walking dead, the director himself holds it to be his peculiar pampered darling among the series.  Taking into account that the budget for Day of the Dead was cut nearly in half due to its inevitable release without an MPAA rating (effectively constricting the story and forcing a rewrite of the script), a closer examination is necessary in order to understand just why Romero thinks of this film as the greatest feather in his directorial cap.

Set in an underground bunker near the Everglades in Florida, Day paints a tragic portrait of human society at one of its lowest moments.  A scientific investigatory team supported by the military works under harsh conditions to find a solution to the plague that has wreaked havoc on the world above, but the trigger-happy military officers grow restless in their duties of watching over the fruitless researches.  While head scientist Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty) secretly experiments on fallen officers and undead specimens to find a way to domesticate the zombies, the choleric Captain Rhodes (Joseph Pilato) grows impatient with their apparent lack of progress despite the sacrifices of his men in obtaining the specimens.  Caught in the middle of this power struggle is our heroine, Dr. Sarah Bowman (Lori Cardille), who struggles as the only female in the entire group while watching Logan raise his “pet” zombie (affectionately called Bub) and seeing tensions rise among the officers.  Apart from the two main factions, helicopter pilot John (Terry Alexander) and whiskey-swigging technician William McDermott (Jarlath Conroy) have found a secluded area of the facility where they set up their own personal paradise in a mobile home among the bats and gloom.   Meanwhile, Lori’s military-employed lover, Miguel (Anthony Dileo Jr.), grows mentally unstable as time progresses, becoming bitten himself and escalating the already high level of tension.  When Captain Rhodes discovers that Dr. Logan has been experimenting on his men’s corpses and using them as “rewards” for Bub, the scientist is gunned down and the remaining members of the scientific team are killed or forced into the specimen corral.  In a final effort of desperation and misguided revenge, Miguel opens the surrounding aboveground fences and opens the entrance to the bunker, allowing the festering hordes to flood into the base.  Rhodes and his men are hunted down by Bub as he seeks to avenge his “father,” Dr. Logan, and eventually they are torn to pieces and devoured by the flesh-eating mob.  Sarah, John, and William finally reach the helicopter and manage to escape to an island to live out the rest of their days (presumably) in peace.

While the outdoor scenes in the beginning and end of the film were shot near Florida’s Fort Myers and the Everglades, the bulk of the film takes place within an underground facility in Pennsylvania.  Like Dawn of the Dead before it, the location of the story nearly becomes a character in and of itself.  The Gateway Commerce Center, a non-active limestone mine converted into a storage facility in Lawrence County outside of Pittsburgh, is a vast underground network with a unique atmosphere that is completely its own.  Modern walls and doorways are suddenly interrupted by massive outcroppings of rock that intrude across corridors and provide a stark reminder of the subterranean setting.  This stone-walled tomb was not without its effects on the cast and crew.  Long days and nights in the darkness and 50 F temperatures cast a palpable gloom over the company, and high humidity resulted in technical difficulties as well.

These and other factors may have contributed to what I consider to be the most praiseworthy aspect of the film: its realism.  And yes, while this film was more poorly received than its predecessors, and some of the performances of its actors have been described as downright risible, I believe that a solid script and strong characterization serve to make this the grittiest of Romero’s original trilogy.  The profanity and vitriol of the military officers’ speeches borders sometimes on the hysterical, and I believe this to be purely intentional.  Every person in the facility is being stretched to his or her limits, and some are beginning to crack.  I personally find Joseph Pilato’s character to be extremely effective, providing a “love to hate” kind of bad guy without going over the edge and becoming completely one-dimensional.  Lori Cardille’s acting may appear to be a bit too stoic at first, but her terrifying dreams belie the psychological turmoil beneath her composed façade.  The daughter of famed Pittsburgh TV personality “Chilly Billy” (who appeared as a reporter in both NOTLD and its remake), Lori’s delivery of Romero’s strong female character erases any question of the director’s ability to give us a powerful heroine who is nonetheless sympathetic and vulnerable.  The stark portrayal of a small vestige of humanity on the verge of utter collapse is what, in my opinion, makes Day an effective film and resulted in Romero’s own high evaluation.

The Bad

As the most heavily maligned of the original Dead trilogy, critics were rankled by Day’s less than stellar performances and an atmosphere that was considered too dark and depressing.  As mentioned above, I think that strong acting was actually what kept this film from sinking even farther below the level of its predecessor, Dawn of the Dead, and the dark, nihilistic tone of the work serves to buoy it up and place it higher among the ranks of the zombie genre.

That being said, there are some characters (Miguel comes to mind) who are somewhat less than suitable for their parts.  Some of these small failures can probably be written off as concessions made for budgetary reasons, which brings me to my next point.  Part of the depressing nature of the film results from its predominant location of a cold, dank underground facility, but what would have happened if Romero had been given the budget he originally requested, and had actually created the Gone with the Wind of zombie epics that he intended?  While recent DVD extras offer a tantalizing glimpse, unfortunately we will never truly know what this film may have been.

To be honest, I could have done with a little less of the expository dialogue, mostly dished out by John the Jamaican helicopter pilot.  The strength of Romero’s satire lies in its stark imagery and striking situations. Unnecessary exegesis on the scourge of living dead and mankind’s relationship to God is simply distracting, and only serves to slow down the pacing of the film as a whole.  But enough about the philosophical stuff, let’s talk about zombies!

The Undead

With Tom Savini back on board and make-up artist Gregory Nicotero (who also played Private Johnson) along for the ride, Day of the Dead ups the ante for OH MY GOD! Where is your faaace?!?  Ahem, it raises the bar with more prosthetics, more latex, and more fake entrails to deaden up Romero’s symphony of horrors.   Unforgettable ghouls like “Dr. Tongue” (seen in the photo) are quite striking for the sheer gruesomeness of their visages, and there’s a pretty fair amount of gut-spilling to be had along the way.  However, surely the prize for Most Lovable Zombie must go to the one and only Bub.  Played by Sherman Howard, Bub’s wrinkled and decaying face nonetheless allows for an outstanding range of emotions to be conveyed.  Recognition flashes across his gangrenous features as he sees items that he knew from his previous life, and his bloodshot eyes light up when he hears nostalgic music from a pair of headphones.  His sorrow at Dr. Logan’s death and blind hatred towards his murderer, Rhodes, round out the  basic animal emotions that are portrayed spectacularly in this sympathetic creature, ironically making him one of the most “human” characters in the entire film.

While terribly underrated, Day of the Dead has been an insidious influence on the zombie genre.  Spawning a sequel and remake, Day also played an integral role in shaping several aspects of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002), not to mention Resident Evil: Extinction (Russell Mulcahy, 2007).  This particular piece of cinema is one of the keys to understanding George A. Romero’s directorial vision, and represents a turning point in the Dead series of films.  But I’ll get deeper into that in my later installments.  For now, if you haven’t already, get out there and take a look at this chilling slice of horror cinema…if you have the stomach for it that is.

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