I think DAWN OF THE DEAD will always be my favorite zombie movie, but DAY OF THE DEAD is the one that’s grown with me the most. When I first saw it I liked it, but my enthusiasm was held back by the obnoxious performances of the guys playing the soldiers. They’re written as total assholes, taunting everybody, dropping weird racial slurs, and the actors (including makeup artist Greg Nicotero, who is now effects head/producer/director/writer/zombie on The Walking Dead) play them as giggling, yelling wackos, more like Rapist #3 in a cheap vigilante movie than like army professionals. The best performance among them is Joe Pilato as their leader, Colonel Rhodes, but he’s so convincing as a detestable prick that I was always convinced he was just being himself.
But I’ve watched the movie many times over the years and it just gets better and better. What once seemed like major flaws have faded away while its successes seem more and more impressive. These days I love to hate Rhodes, who’s such a dick that I can’t even root for him when he pulls off the award worthy badass move of grunting “Choke on ’em!!” at the zombies who’ve torn him in half and are eating his intestines. And the rest of those guys don’t bother me that much anymore. Their undeniable obnoxiousness has been far eclipsed by the aspects of the movie I love: everything else.
Obviously there’s Bub. It would be hard to deny that Howard Sherman, a.k.a. Sherman Howard (LETHAL WEAPON 2), gives the best zombie acting performance of all time. You may have your favorite zombies such as Tar Man from RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, Maggot Eye from ZOMBI or Shoulder-Biter-In-the-Projects-Zombie or Hare Krishna Zombie from DAWN OF THE DEAD, but few have had the chance to turn a zombie into a full-fledged character. Bub is a zombie (or “dumbfuck” as they’re sometimes called in this one) with a character arc. You can watch him (sort of) think, you can see him trying to figure things out, remembering things, learning things. He’s not human but he’s sympathetic, like a pet, and you root for him to get his revenge. Sherman is so good it’s hard for me to imagine that it’s an actor under there, he seems as much animal as human.
It’s also important to note that the music on the Walkman that Bub enjoys is “Ode to Joy.” So he would’ve liked DIE HARD.
Equally important to the movie, though he doesn’t get as much credit, is Richard Liberty (PORKY’S II: THE NEXT DAY) as Dr. Logan, a.k.a. Frankenstein. He’s a genius who has made an incredible breakthrough that he wastes with his poor social skills. He can domesticate a zombie and teach him to salute but he can’t bring himself to humor the assholes with the loaded guns, he has to talk to them like the idiots they are, and pisses them off. He also doesn’t have the sense to try to win over the scientists who should be on his team, and is reckless and delusional about the consequences of the others finding out about his Herbert Westian unethical ideas like sneaking the body of one of their own to use as a zombie test subject. He figures since he can justify it to himself nobody else is gonna have a problem with it. But of course they are. So I can’t just put this on the soldiers, I gotta blame both sides of this conflict.
Wow, now that I think of it that character really could’ve been an influence on RE-ANIMATOR. He’s brilliant, groundbreaking, out of line, arrogant, impatient with the intellectual inferiority of everyone around him, and blinded by his power over death. And his undoing is in needing to use freshly dead bodies for his experiments. Also, there are worse people than him in the movie so he’s not the bad guy. In his defense, I think Logan is less of an asshole than West, and that his experiments had more of a realistic potential to help the world if he had been given a chance to continue.
Like DAWN, the appeal of DAY not only has to do with great characters, but also with the overall world, the unique location, the tone, the substance. Despite taking place in Florida it’s much darker and dingier looking than DAWN, even when they’re not underground. And it begins later in the disaster, when having hope seems even more naive. According to Logan’s estimate, zombies outnumber us somewhere around 400,000 to 1. Still, our heroes fly into the city regularly to look for more survivors. It’s a ghost town with a loose gator in the streets and money littered on the ground like the worthless garbage that it is. (Nobody even bothers to play with it like in DAWN.) They’re calling out “Hello” and the only answer they get is the building wall of moans from a zombie herd heading their way.
I’ve always admired how those first four DEAD movies, partly through Romero’s thoughtfulness and partly on accident, wound up being movies very much about and of their respective decades. They each focus on the fears and obsessions of their times and their filmatistical style fits their eras as well.
I think maybe people who don’t like DAY want it to be more like DAWN. But it has to be different because it’s the Dead movie of the ’80s. It should have a pink logo and a hero wearing Ray-Bans to really drive the point home, but if you look at it you can see that it’s very much of its time.
Stylistically it’s an ’80s movie. The hall-of-fame zombie face and gore effects are a part of the great latex innovations in the decade of THE THING and AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. The aforementioned over-the-top acting style is of its era – think of the assholes in fraternity movies, or those football fans who call the radio station at the beginning of TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2. The movie itself is all scored, no pop songs, but there’s an original vocal song on the end credits, something that wasn’t done that much when DAWN came out but became standard by this time. (The score – by John Harrison, who later directed TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE: THE MOVIE – is more conventional than what Goblin did for DAWN, because ’70s music just couldn’t be made anymore in the ’80s. Luckily it uses a thumping ba-bump, ba-bump type bassline in tribute to DAWN.)
Notice that in this one everybody has machine guns. They could’ve used some of those in the Monroeville Mall. They had to have them in DAY because America loved machine guns in the ’80s. DAY came out 2 months after RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II.
Even the Fort Myers, Florida setting, with its palm trees and loose alligator, feels a little ’80s to me with its resemblance to Miami Vice. But that might be a stretch. They’re wearing socks and everything.
Maybe that’s another reason why DAY had to grown on me – the aesthetics of the ’80s generally don’t appeal to me like those of the ’70s. But it’s not just the form that’s 1985, it’s the content. Here we have what’s left of civilization surviving in an underground base, and the military is still getting all the resources, the scientists having to beg for them. Iran-Contra is reflected in the military faction overstepping its bounds and refusing to be controlled by civilian leaders. Cold War paranoia shows up in the form of Miguel’s kamikaze zombie elevator attack on the base, taking down himself, his enemies and the archives of humanity all in one move. Mutually assured destruction.
Watching DAY right after DAWN I finally pinpointed some confusion I had about Romero’s zombie rules. In DAWN, Roger gets bit, and they just bandage him up and he doesn’t die. As far as the movie indicates the bites aren’t poisonous. It’s just that if you die – from bleeding out after getting bit, from a car accident, from sleep apnea – you turn into a zombie. But in DAY the bite itself will turn you, so when Miguel gets bit on his forearm they have to amputate it (a rule that lives on in modern zombie entertainment). Treating it as an infection works well for the Dead movie from when the AIDS epidemic came to light. In the tradition of the Reagan administration the powers that be down here have no sympathy, and don’t care about trying to find medical solutions. I don’t think the parallel is intentional – the bite transference just comes from vampire and werewolf stories – but it’s interesting how many ’80s horror classics work as AIDS metaphors.
DAY contrasts interestingly with DAWN. As I pointed out the other day, DAWN was all about the idea of “running,” giving up on civilization, abandoning your home and responsibilities. A TV producer, a pilot and two cops leaving their jobs and duties behind, going on the road, enjoying sort of a decadent looter lifestyle in this mall, taking off again when it all goes south. DAY is the opposite. These are people who accepted a mission set up hastily in the few days after Hell ran out of vacancies, and they’re still on it. Some of the soldiers seem to forget their original goals, and John and McDermott dream of taking off for a hedonistic life on an island somewhere. But Sarah and her scientist colleagues take their duties to mankind very seriously. She says she could never run off “with all that’s going on.” She’s trying to find a way to reverse the zombification process, Logan is figuring out how to surgically alter them, or even to tame them. And they still regularly use the radio to try to find and communicate with other survivors. They’re not running, they’re not giving up.
They do recognize, though, that the collapse of civilization is a good opportunity to grow marijuana openly. Despite that luxury, things don’t go swimmingly. The soldiers perform a coup on their civilian bosses, and Miguel does his thing, spoiling not just their safe haven and resources for other survivors, but an archive for the world’s records, film negatives, etc. Giving up on anyone ever needing to look at the past. And the “happy” ending is that Sarah joins John and McDermott in taking off to find a beach somewhere. However, ending on Sarah crossing out the day on her calendar shows that she’s not on permanent vacation. She’s keeping track of her time, and maybe her mission.
It’s also worth comparing DAY’s strong female lead to Francine in DAWN. Fran is often the voice of reason in DAWN and is good about standing up for herself, telling the men to give her a gun, to not leave her out of decisions, to not treat her differently because she’s pregnant. She also wisely demands to be taught how to fly the helicopter, which saves her and Peter’s lives at the end. Unfortunately Fran is not as likable as the men. She doesn’t get much chance to have fun, she’s always complaining or being left behind.
I guess Sarah, the only living woman in DAY, isn’t usually in a good mood either, but she’s the lead of the film, the action-taker, the smartest non-crazy person there and of equal or greater badassness to any of the men around her. She’s the first character to pull a gun on anyone. She holds her own against macho military assholes in much the same way Ripley did in ALIENS, but a year earlier.
She does have to put up with some shit that men wouldn’t have to. Rhodes belittles her with sexual threats and calls her “lady,” like he doesn’t know her fucking name. You sense that shutting her up at gun point is not only about not wanting to hear what she has to say, but not wanting to hear what a woman has to say.
She’s had a relationship with Miguel, now strained as he’s losing his shit, and he resents her too. “We’re all collapsing except you,” he complains. That his girlfriend is tougher than him is upsetting to him, it makes him feel like a sissy and he takes it out on her.
She’s not just a strong woman, she’s a strong scientist. After complaining about the idiots in PROMETHEUS it’s only fair to give Sarah credit for her dedication to scientific principles. Even as Logan is accomplishing incredible things with his experiments she scolds him for all the assumptions he’s making. She’s not the kind of person who just accepts the bullshit that people say. When McDermott offers her a swig from his flask of brandy he says “it’s good for the heart.” She takes it and smiles but can’t stop from correcting him. “It’s shit for the heart and eats up your liver.”
Sarah’s a great character. She definitely demonstrates an evolution in Romero’s depiction of women, which also shows up later in that NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD remake he wrote and produced.
I know there are some people out there who will never be convinced, but honestly. Whether you never liked it or you always liked it, give this one another watch. This is a movie that keeps on getting better. DAY OF THE DEAD, I salute you.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.