Almost thirty years since the decade ended, our culture continues to romanticise the Eighties. I am myself guilty of this – I do run a cult film blog, after all.
But it’s worth noting that for all the good things to come from the decade (the cult movies, synth music, and the cool aesthetics), it was also an era of divisive politics and reprehensible greed. Underneath the Eighties’ neon-tinged exterior, is the bloated carcass of nihilistic excess, Reganomics, and self-centrism.
Fertile ground, then, for a visionary film making with a knack for turning serious social critique into entertaining horror. In 1985, half way through the decade, George A. Romero released Day of the Dead: the final part of his zombie trilogy that began with Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead.
Whereas the previous two instalments (Night and Dawn) used the concept of a zombie apocalypse to provide social commentary on weighty themes – racism, civil rights, consumerism, etc. – Day of the Dead takes aim at the heart of Eighties culture. Hence, it is a movie were everyone is an insufferable toss-pot, and the zombies are established as eating people just because they can. It’s a zombie eat man world here in the era of Gordon Gekko.
Day of the Dead makes for a difficult sell; as the original reviews can attest. As the final instalment for a trilogy which has been gradually escalating in the stakes department, you’d expect it to be the balls-out swan song the series deserved. The final battle between the living and the dead. That was likely Romero’s intent, before he found his budget halved to $3.5 million, and he was forced to revise the script. The end result is a bastard child somewhere between the isolated siege movie which was Night of the Living Dead, and the more overtly apocalyptic Dawn of the Dead.
Personally, I think the movie is better for the reduced scope. This is not really a zombie film, and it didn’t need to be: Romero had already said everything that needed to be said about zombies. Sidelining the zombies leaves more room for the characters, ideas, and for the crushing sense of hopelessness as we watch the final few survivors in the United States (possibly the world) fall apart and turn against each other.
Humanity is its own greatest foe.
An unspecified amount of time since the events of Dawn of the Dead has passed, and civilisation has completely collapsed. What humans do remain live and hide in underground government shelters. One such group, operating out of Fort Myers, Florida, is comprised of a group of scientists working for a cure, a handful of civilian operators simply getting by, and the soldiers resentfully protecting them. We are told that the soldiers are following orders from the government, and yet that government may well be long gone.
This pressure cooker of a situation results in an atmosphere which can be described as the sort of smoky hostility you experience when you have to share your bedroom with a younger sibling.
The opening five minutes of the movie establishes the true extent of the situation, as the team – led by scientist Dr Sarah Bowman (Lori Cardille) – fly through across Florida to search for survivors and find only ruined cities and death. Either that, or they stumbled upon a hen party in Blackpool. Unlike the glimmer of hope offered in Dawn of the Dead, this film thoroughly presents the world as lost. The old order has been wiped out and the new order (the zombies) live in its ruins.
Below ground the ideological battle lines are starting to emerge. Top class dick head Captain Rhodes (Joseph Pilato) takes over as the group’s leader. Rhodes doesn’t see the point the scientists, irrationally thinks everyone else is the problem, and spends the entire movie swinging his dick about and shouting the bollocks off people.
But he’s also faced with leading his men through an unending nightmare. Here’s a revealing comment for you: I’ve found that the older I get, the more ‘villains’ like Rhodes make sense. Yes, he’s an asshole and the designated bad guy – but at the end of the day he’s just trying to keep a lid on things and ensure the safety of his men.
Dr. Matthew “Frankenstein” Logan (Richard Liberty) on the other hand, sees no problem with using fallen soldiers as fodder for experiments, or food for the undead. And aside from Sarah, the scientists are incapable and constantly whinge about their working conditions. Never mind that it’s the soldiers who have to risk their assess. We’ve all got colleagues like these scientists: they do, maybe, 20% of the heavy work and complain about what a crap day they’ve had.
This is the first great failing of Day of the Dead: that there are few characters actually deserving of our sympathy. Sarah is a strong, capable female lead, but she’s completely passive and detached from everything around her. How does that make sense? The rest of the cast are just shades of asshole, crazy, or depressed. The military personal are loud, crude, and motivated entirely by macho bravado. Simply put, they’re just generally awful people. Romero’s disdain for the military-industrial complex is painfully obvious.
As a result, a zombie – Bub (Sherman Howard) – is able to become one of the more standout characters. Bub possesses remedial intelligence and, through Dr Logan’s experiments, is taught basic tasks. This includes switching on a walkman, saluting Rhodes, and firing a gun. For those who like their zombie films to be played entirely straight, this plot line is rather outlandish.
For me, I certainly like Bub as a character. I’m not the kind of monster who doesn’t cry at the end of Terminator 2, you know. But the point of zombies is that they reflect some negative aspect of humanity. That they’re dead only serves to extend this metaphor: they’re the rotting, disgusting parts of humanity which serve only as a dead-end to our progression as a species.
But here Romero sees the zombies as something else entirely – they can be characters, not just plot devices. I’m not sure what Bub is supposed to represent, however. If the humans represent the worst of humanity this time around, then is Bub the future? Of course, what Romero started with Bub he would later develop with “Big Daddy” in Land of the Dead.
The development of the zombies’ evolution forms a nice parallel with the devolution of humanity. Romero is satirising a decade that ushered in ‘me,me,me’ politics. In Night and Dawn, there remained the faith that humanity will always (eventually) pull together. Day doesn’t have that optimism: the humans are worn down and feel put out by the needs of their fellow survivors when they’re thinking only of themselves. Never mind that the human race is on its knees from the zombie threat. This is humanity at its worst: selfish, lacking communication, and broken. Again, just like every office job I’ve ever had.
And in a moment of the human characters serving as examples of humanity’s awfulness, the scenes of the zombies being forced into cages, like cattle, shows our treatment of ‘lesser beings’. Which is given further context with the development of Bub as a character.
“That’s all well and good,” I hear you cry, “but where’s the blood!”
Well alright, Jason Voorhees: you’ll be pleased to know that Day of the Dead is considered Tom Savini‘s special effects masterpiece. The zombies are the best realised of any Romero film up to this point. Unlike the naff zombies from the previous instalments, the zombies here look appropriately decayed and are comparable to those of Italian zombie films. And, of course, this being Savini, there are plenty of brutal death scenes. Throats are shredded by teeth, arms hacked off, and heads exploded.
I think that the violence here is more prolonged and harder-hitting than anything from Dawn of the Dead. There are two very famous death scenes: Rhodes being disembowelled and torn apart, and one of the soldiers who gets his head (slowly) ripped off – as his pained screams raise higher and higher in pitch. Day of the Dead simply does not disappoint on the gore front. It stacks alongside anything else released in the era and is a step-up from its already hyper-violent predecessor.
To get to the reckless blood-soaked carnage, however, you have to sit through a film dedicated to building a thoroughly miserable and nihilistic atmosphere. The base is well-realised and becomes this claustrophobic place indistinguishable from a prison or a tomb. A moody and pessimistic vibe – heightened by John Harrison’s Carpenter style synth soundtrack – hangs over proceedings. And the majority of the action comes from the unhinged interactions between the characters, who are as jovial to one another as a divorcing couple.
That’s the problem with having ennui as your plot…nothing happens!
But it is my favourite of Romero’s ‘…of the Dead’ films. Call me jaded, but I cannot think of a more fitting swan song to the zombie genre. If this was the last zombie film ever made, I would have been happy. Look at Romero’s ‘sequel trilogy’. With the possible exception of Land of the Dead, Romero’s follow ups to Day are inferior and derivative of his own work. They do nothing to build upon his creation and can simply be described as ‘more zombie movies’. As if that’s what the world needed.
Not even the uncharacteristic happy ending can remedy the bleakness of Day. Helicopter pilot John (Terry Alexander), radio operator McDermott (Jarlath Conroy), and Sarah escape to a tropical island content to live out the remainder of their days in the sun. Lovely tranquil music plays and it seems a bit too nicey-nice compared to the depressing greyness of before, right? Wrong.
It’s a superficial ending, symbolic of a superficial decade. Closer to the Club Tropicana music video than the ending of a zombie film. John and McDermott never gave two squirts about helping the scientists find a cure, or aiding the military in keeping order. They were happy to live in their little bromance section of the bunker, and doing the quintessential Eighties’ thing of not giving a shit.