George A. Romero's Best (and Worst)

Day of the dead is probably the least respected of all George Romero's zombie movies and certainly so if Land of the Dead is not considered a part of the series. On initial viewing, it's not hard to see why. It starts out interesting, with the world completely fallen apart, Florida streets strewn with abandoned cars and wandering gators, the zombies looking great plodding along amongst old newspapers proclaiming The End and useless cash. But once the story focuses on an underground military bunker of dwindling scientists and soldiers it gets talky and sort of ridiculous. A lot of scenes of people yelling at each other and obnoxious fat soldiers laughing like hooting maniacs. Captain Rhodes (Joseph Pilato) is such an insanely one dimensional character, with his flared nostrils, bulging eyes and sneered lips its hard to take him seriously. The black pilot dude, John (Terry Alexander) is jamaican which just seems sort of goofy here, and his sidekick (Jerlath Coroy) is defined by always swigging from a flask and having a funny accent (irish I guess). Private Salazar (Anthony Dileo jr.) has something resembling charisma, but is left to being an anxious mess most of the time and the lead, Sarah (Lori Cardille) is just there, the sole woman in the bunch and uptight as can be.
There's a couple incredible gore scenes, but for the most part not a lot of zombies till the end. And the score, by John Harrison, is sorta shit, and hasn't aged well. Why no Goblin contribution I have no idea, but it seems sort of nuts that they wouldn't be in here. The learning zombie, Bub (Sherman Howard), is the one saving grace. The makeup is flawless and expressive and he is probably the most interesting character in the whole movie. The story ends with a great zombie orgy which feels a little too late. I am sure Day of the Dead is harshly critiqued because it will forever be compared with Dawn of the Dead, which, for the most part is bursting at the seems with gore and action and set pieces-its the ultimate 'fun' horror movie. And with Night of the Living Dead, which besides having the all time greatest movie title, is a true cinema classic.
So. Each time I watched Day of the Dead after that initial letdown, I sort of half watched it. Not paying too much attention and trying to focus on the good parts. Romero, in numerous interviews, has maintained it's his personal favorite of all the Dead movies. I sorta took that as a contrarian stance, because it just doesn't make sense. At least initially. Reading an old issue of Cinefantastique recently, I came across an article on the then new film and it said that the film was initially more epic in scope, but would only get the bigger budget if Romero would deliver an R rated film. He went for the X rating for less money. In my mind it seemed like he made the wrong choice. It seemed the film would have greatly benefited from a larger scope, more characters and locations. I was intrigued to watch it again and put it on a couple days ago.
About 20 minutes in, when Salazar loses his grip on a zombie coming through the gate, at that point I realized the zombies looked really different than the ones in Dawn of the Dead. In Dawn every zombie is blue grey, a bare powder. In Day every zombie is pretty elaborately made up with layered prosthetics, eye lenses, and false teeth. It's more 'realistic'. Huh. Later, when Salazar fucks up again and lets loose another zombie, he gets bitten and runs for dear life. A grown man running scared is made even more pathetic because he is underground and has absolutely nowhere to go. His girlfriend, Sarah, chases after him and finally catches up and when she does she smashes him unconscious with a large rock and then cuts off his arm with a machete and lights the bloody stump on fire to stop the bleeding. All shown in close-up. Right after Sarah chars up the arm she has this crazed look on her face, all her muscles tight, and you see her go from moving on pure adrenaline to break down as she collapses in John's arms and Romero holds the shot on her crying face. The weight of trying to hold it together finally bearing down on her. It's clear that the more realistic gore, the matter of fact nature of how gore is shown is to switch the tone from the more fast and loose style of Dawn to something more grim. In dawn, the extreme nature of the gore worked in pushing the tone into a real over the top style. But in Day, Romero uses extreme gore, this time realistically portrayed, as a way to create a space that is true to reality. Which makes sense-Night is about the begining of the zombie problem, Dawn is about the direct aftermath with the characters more in the moment of dealing with it, and Day is about when al hope is lost, survival is meager and the focus of the last remaining humans is on adaption to the problem and how one continues on in the face of disaster.
It is often said that Night of the Living Dead serves as a metaphor for the civil rights movement and the general upheaval of the times and how Dawn is about the mass consumerism that was starting to flourish in the mid seventies. Watching Day of the Dead now, once can see it as a metaphor for both America's class relations of the eighties and of its military boosterism. and with the Bub character and the zombie infiltration at the end, you can clearly pinpoint Romero's allegiance switch from human sympathizer to zombie sympathizer. He makes the military personnel in the film so bad, either whole unempathetic or down right evil they are clearly the villains and stand in for all government. It can now be understood why they are portrayed so harshly. And the zombies, with Bub as their mascot, can logically be seen as society at large. Watching the film in this light, a lot of previously bothersome aspects make a lot more sense. I look at the film now as one Romero's best written. It also becomes clear how a Goblin score would not fit here. In Dawn, the score is super groovy with heavy base and more 'action' beats. that wouldn't fit here, as the tone is so different. that doesn't excuse John Harrison completely, but it at least makes it more bearable.
In many ways, Day of the Dead presents Romero's weaknesses as a film director in full force as much as it shows his strengths, making it pretty interesting to those looking at Romero's entire output. Romero films are always badly cast. Maybe not badly acted, but never do his characters have much presence. And in Day it can take a long time to warm up to any of the cast (besides Bub of course). Lori Cardille, as the lead, is completely lacking in any sort of charm or warmth. All the male protagonists are just plain bland. Dr. logan being the one lone exception for the odd cadence of his speech, and physical perkiness. The set design is mostly uninspired, costumes forgettable (it's a fucking plaid parade!), and the cinematography is functionary. These things plague almost all of Romero's movies.
So yeah, in every which way, Day of the Dead is totally bland to watch. but once you get past a lot of that (if you can get past it), there's a lot of great stuff that will then, in turn, make you revalue some of the crappier aspects like Joseph Platos as Captain Rhodes. I watch that performance now, and it still makes me feel sorta sick to the stomach, but with admiration for it's sheer gusto. I mean this guy just rolls with this to the point that you actually feel his point of view, his frustration at not being able to do anything though he carries around six large guns, and criss crossing bullet belts the entire time. when he finally gets to shoot somebody, it's like the biggest relief in the world. If there was a character who represented pure male tension that is it.
Watching Bub now, I am without a doubt certain that Sherman Howard was studying toddlers in that performance. The way he rolls his jaw, can't control his movements, and keeps this look of curiosity and vulnerability in his eyes is just amazing and creates the heart of the whole movie. A great physical performance that grows better and better and totally worthy of Chaney. How Romero can go from getting it so right with Bub to so wrong with the black gas attendant in Land of the Dead is mind boggling. The gas attendant conveys nothing but blunt angst. He doesn't even seem like a zombie, more like a mute dude with a back problem on too many meds. I can't enjoy Land mainly for that character. ugh.
Day of the Dead takes a certain amount of effort, and it may take awhile, but it's worth it.

posted by sammy at 4:58 PM

Blogger Josh Simmons said...

As I kid I reckon I always loved Day best, maybe in part cuz, yes, well said, it's so fucking grim, grimmest of the bunch. Some really priceless moments, the opening dream sequence and dead town, and full blown gut chewing climax.

4:03 PM  

Anonymous Anonymous said...

My friend once said that his parent's house is like "Day of The Dead." Non-stop scream-arguments.
I read the script for the original planned version a few years ago online. It's probably still available somewhere on the net. Worth reading on a lazy sunday.

10:22 PM  

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think this was it:
"Thanks to Crow and Devil's Advocate"... awesome.

10:29 PM  

Blogger sammy said...

dash, thanks for the excellent link!

12:19 AM  

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Land of the Dead's greatest problem is that it's one half two intended films, the second of which will never happen because Universal was stupid enough to drop the thing in the Summer right between War of the Worlds and Batman Begins. All of those characters thrown in near the end could have served some function in that sequel. As it is, they're undeveloped dead weight.
It sounds like Romero adapted the ideas he wanted to use for Diary of the Dead. It'll still be a "zombie road movie," but you won't get the Supertruck or any of the other Mad Max stuff that was on his drawing board.

9:21 AM  

Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's always nice to see Day of the Dead get some appreciation. It's one of my favourite horror movies, second only to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the original, natch) in my personal top several. It's grim, it's claustrophobic, and its apparent lack of action is due to Romero (mostly) pretty deftly building the tension until the apocalyptic gorefest at the end.

2:42 PM  

Post a Comment

Go Back