I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Day of the Dead

tn_dayofthedeadI 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.

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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.

mp_dayofthedeadWow, 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.

The part where Rhodes touches his face while imagining having sex with Sarah is maybe my least favorite acting in the movie.
This bit where Rhodes pauses to imagine having sex with Sarah is maybe my least favorite acting in the movie.

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.

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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.
This entry was posted on Saturday, November 23rd, 2013 at 12:12 am and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

28 Responses to “Day of the Dead”

  1. My favorite character in any film I’ve ever seen: Bub. My second favorite character in any film I’ve ever seen: Link. Neither are human, but both are almost. I wonder what that says about me.

  2. I thought Rhodes was played by Bono when I first saw this back in the day.

  3. it’s a great little movie, but has anyone read the original script? I gotta say I wish Romero had been able to film what he originally wrote (though he later recycled some of the ideas for LAND OF THE DEAD), it’s really awesome

  4. The only real problem I have with Day of the Dead is the three ostensibly main characters, Sarah, John, and McDermott. The ones who survive. They’re just so damn boring.

    You’ve got this movie with these strong, intense characters like Rhodes and Frankenstein and Bub, and then you’re supposed to be okay with the movie stopping dead to focus on these three nothings. You can see it in this review: Vern mentions McDermott’s name twice and John’s name once, but he doesn’t actually say anything about either of those characters. What could there possibly be to say about those characters? Why are they even in the movie?

    Of course, aside from those three, everything about the movie is fantastic.

  5. I always figured that Herbert West (as much as he IS based on the Lovecraft character, who performed virtually ALL of the same misdeeds as the cinematic version) was mostly an idea someone had (Gordon? Combs himself?) to play West as the younger version of Peter Cushing’s Hammer Frankenstein. Cold, arrogant, sardonically humorous, and sure of his abilities to pull off whatever he puts his mind to.

    It would be a re-tread, of course, but I’ve always wanted to see Combs in the Dr. Frankenstein role.

  6. Romero had the choice of an increased budget with less control ( and an R-rated end product) or a limited budget, with more control and lots more gore. He chose the latter one. But I would have liked to see his more ambitious vision of DAY OF THE DEAD. Still, what we got is fucking great. Perhaps a more ambitious movie would have made the film feel less claustrophobic, I don´t know.

  7. So… bear with me here (and fuck me in the ass and call me Holly)… but,…

    Isn’t it about time SOMEONE figured out a way to assemble a Die Hard/Zombie movie that gives John McClane his biggest challenge to date? HELLO?

    Alan Rickman, William Sadler, John Amos, Jeremy Irons, Timothy Olyphant, and every other fucking person he’s killed across 5 Die Hard movies, all hungry for human flesh, all gunnin’ for payback & good to go.

    Tell me this WOULDN’T work. No way, Jose.

  8. Griff, I read the original script before seeing DAY. I loved the concept of the underground society and of the theory that someone just finally has to stop being selfish and stop coming back. Wish that he could have done that version. LAND touched on some of those concepts, but never really realized it as fully as the DAY script did.

  9. I really sympathize with Rhodes. I mean, he’s a warrior at heart. He’d probably prefer to be out there fighting instead of babysitting some scientists. I’ve always wondered what his backstory was. He wasn’t probably always such an asshole. In his element (which would be on the battlefield), he probably was a useful member of society. But sitting underground with people who are his polar opposite has probably driven him half-mad. There’s probably a small part of him that wants to trust the scientists, but they areidealogically the opposite of him, so that prospect is impossible. I mean take a look at the scene where Frankenstein presents his findings on Bud. “Is this the shit that’s supposed to knock our socks off?”, he asks. He probably wanted to belive there was going to be a major breakthrough, but the fact that Bub “doesn’t see us as lunch” isn’t much of a milestone for him. His idea of a solution to the problem is extermination. Frankenstein’s solution is passive coexistence. Try telling a soldier that all of a sudden he’s supposed to embrace the enemy he’s fought for years and see how he reacts.

    Rhodes is kind of a scumbag sure, but every time I watch the movie, I can always see things through his point of view. I mean he only really goes nuts after he learns Frankenstein has been using the bodies of his dead comrades as experiments. It would be a natural reaction to immediately seek retribution on Frankenstein.

    Pilato’s Rhodes is my favorite horror movie character. I love his arrogance, his “I don’t give a fuck attitude”, and especially his dialogue. I got to meet Joe Pilato at a convention and told him my love for the character. After we took a picture, he totally chewed me out in character. It was awesome.

  10. Wait a second captain, I must protest. I think the bites have always been infectious; the daughter in the basement turns in Night after getting bit, and Roger gets readily worse even though he was bit in what were otherwise non-fatal areas. It’s been been constant, as far as I can tell.

    Otherwise this is glorious, well in line with your usual excellence.

  11. Well then the inconsistency is in the amount of time it takes to turn. But in DAWN it really doesn’t seem like they’re waiting for him to turn until he starts seeming near death. Before that they’re pushing him around acting like he’s going to recover. At any rate it’s nice to see they’ve learned at least a snake bite type of treatment by the time of DAY.

    And thanks for your comments on Rhodes, Jack, I love your take on him.

  12. Peter actually says that he’s seen people get bit, and that they never last more than three days. In all of Roger’s scene’s after the zombies bite him, it’s there under the surface that they all know he’s going to die soon, but no one wants to talk about it.

  13. To continue the discussion on Rhodes, I think he represents the sort of person who just can’t adapt to the new reality and therefore puts everyone else in danger. I think Jack’s right, his problem is that he’s a person who’s put all his stock in a role which no longer exists. He wants to be a military guy, but the military doesn’t really exist anymore, there’s nobody to fight and no way to win, they’re just a bunch of guys with guns trying to pretend otherwise. He can’t exist without having an enemy to battle, and since he can’t fight the zombies he turns his anger towards the other “tribe” of scientists. They’re that “other” that you have to have when you’re a combative personality. Romero’s always interested in why people can’t just do the obvious rational thing and cooperate — he’s one example of why they can’t. In the face of a zombie invasion, almost all the values he committed his life to become meaningless. There’s no more patriotism, no more glory to be had in battle. He’s sitting in a hole being bossed around by a bunch of hated intellectuals, being told he has to be patient with the scientific process, which he neither respects nor understands.

    Actually, in a way he’s not all that different from Dr. Logan, who also doesn’t seem to quite get that the joy of detatched scientific exploration isn’t really valuable in the same way it once was, and he needs to focus on something more practical.

    But let’s be real here, Rhodes was always an asshole. He just maybe used to be an asshole who had a more socially acceptable outlet for it. You don’t turn THAT fucking hatable just out of frustration.

  14. Pride, impotence, and the certain knowledge that he is surrounded by people more intelligent than himself (including, perhaps, the undead themselves) are Rhodes’ problems.
    Logan speaks – Rhodes screams.
    Logan asks – Rhodes dictates.
    Logan intellectualises – Rhodes threatens.

    This is, for my money, the scariest movie ever made. And I can’t stop watching it.

  15. One thing we need to remember about Rhodes is that he’s just a captain. This isn’t his command. He just inherited from a long line of higher-ranking dead fucks before him. As a field officer, he’s no doubt been taking shit from army brass his whole career, so now that he’s been promoted from link in the chain of command to military despot in just a few months, he’s gonna do things his way. That means no more listening to bureaucrats and pencil-pushers who’ve never been in the line of fire. Those are the kind of pantywaists who fucked up ‘Nam. This time, he gets to win.

    As for the movie as a whole, I love it. It’s not as scary as NIGHT or as fun as DAWN, but it’s not supposed to be. This isn’t an adventure, it’s an elegy for that failed experiment we call the human race. Fun isn’t really a factor…

    …except for those death scenes, which are real crowd-pleasers. They’re easily the best work of Savini’s career, which put them high in the running for best gore scenes of all time. I don’t know how Nicotero can even sleep at night, knowing that with all the technological advancements we’ve seen in the past 30 years, his old boss bested him with liquid latex and a bucket of sheep guts.

    As much as I love the movie, though, I must admit that I’m not as in love with Bub as everyone else seems to be. I can take him or leave him, honestly.

  16. caruso_stalker217

    November 24th, 2013 at 1:48 am

    I’M RUNNIN THIS MONKEY FARM NOW, FRANKENSTEIN, AND I WANNA KNOW WHAT THE FUCK YOU’RE DOIN WITH MY TIME!

    I love Rhodes, the prick.

  17. Yeah, just to chime in on the Rhodes revisionism, there IS a moment where Rhodes seems genuinely (if guardedly, skeptically) hopeful about what the scientists have to say. But then they lose him pretty quick. He needs simple answers, and they’re too honest (or naive) to feed him any.

    And I love how Bubs as a concept pushes around the idea of what zombies are capable of, something Land of the Dead picks up on with the gas station dude. In a weird way, what sets Romero’s zombie films apart from more recent stuff is that they don’t take zombies for granted, they’re always trying to figure out what they’re all about.

  18. I’m with ya caruso_stalker217, Rhodes is an awesome prick of a character. The overacting only makes him more detestable, and therefore more memorable.

  19. I’m ashamed to have to admit that I’ve never actually watched this one. Always meant to but never have. I’ll have to rectify that given Vern’s review and some of the comments on here.

  20. Part of the reason zombies are appealing to a lot of people is that it creates a moral vacuum where you can kill without consequence. It’s socially acceptable genocide. That’s why Bub is such a great addition to the mythology, he throws a wrinkle in the moral fabric of the universe. If the zombies are capable of learning and intelligence, however stunted, all of a sudden the war isn’t ethically pure. Bub is awesome. Long live Bub.

    It makes me sad that there are people out there who will confuse this with the horrendously shitty 2008 remake.

  21. yes that 2008 remake is a fucking abomination and a huge missed opportunity to boot, it would have actually been interesting if it followed Romero’s original script

  22. Aren’t some other assholes remaking DAY OF THE DEAD again?

  23. I saw this at a friend’s house when I was probably 14 or 15 years old. Scared the ever-loving shit out of me and we had to turn it off after about 45 minutes because every kid in the room was freaked out.

  24. I saw DOTD once, and I dare say that was maybe one time too many. I like Night and Dawn well enough, but Day is just downbeat as fuck. Mind you, I’m not one of those people whose emotional and psychological needs dictate that I absolutely MUST consistently exit the theatre with fingers snappin’, toes a-tappin’, and grinning ear-to-ear like Cecil The Wonderchimp. There’s enough adversity in life that to see it reflected on a movie screen is axiomatic, and when it’s done WELL, it’s incisive and thought-provoking and hopefully you learned something from it. But if Romero made DOTD just to bum people out, he knocked that sucker right outta the ballpark.

  25. There is a novel continuing the movie Day of the Dead, an official sequel. It’s called Sunset of the Dead by Anthony Giangregorio. Below is the book summary is the zombie novel. It’s available wherever books are sold online

    MORE ADVENTURES INTO THE WORLD OF DAY OF THE DEAD!

    It has been years since the dead began to walk and civilization is now nothing but a memory. Cities are nothing but ruins, filled with the living dead, and where once small enclaves survived, now they are all gone.

    One of the last holdouts, a group of soldiers and scientists hidden in an underground bunker in Florida, are also gone after being overrun by the undead.

    But there were three survivors: Sarah, John and McDermott.

    Escaping in a helicopter, the group found refuge on an island off the coast of Florida, where they hope to begin life anew, away from the death and destruction that was once mankind.

    But the island is far from uninhabited, and soon Sarah and the others find themselves embroiled in the struggles of a small camp of people that came to the island years ago at the beginning of the outbreak. Here, men of science as well as civilians have begun working on a cure for the undead plague.

    Sarah soon finds out that she is the key to the cure, that she alone could be the one to save the remaining humans on the planet from a fate worse than death.

    But there is one hitch. The key to the cure of the plague is buried in her notes back at the underground bunker, and the only way to reach Sarah’s lab is through hundreds upon hundreds of walking dead that now fill the corridors.

    With a small commando force joining in, Sarah, John and McDermott have no choice but return to the fateful bunker where Sarah and the others had only narrowly escaped with their lives weeks ago.

    But unknown to them, the bunker harbors an evil far worse than the walking dead. An enemy they believe is long dead has resurfaced with only one goal…vengeance and death.

    Though at first there was Day of the Dead, eventually night must fall.

    Then there is only the Sunset of the Dead.

  26. The bite in Dawn kills Roger. It takes a while, just like in Night.

    The fans DID want this to be like Dawn, but the thing is of the original Romero trilogy, Dawn was always the outlier. Day is more similar to Night.

  27. Amazing Larry, that’s weird because Day sort of has the most upbeat ending of them all. In Dawn you get the sense they’re heading out into God Knows What, but in Day they’re on a sweet paradise island.

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