July 19, 1985
DAY OF THE DEAD – like MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME – is a favorite movie of mine that I’ve already written about thoroughly (click here for my review from 2013), but that still felt important to revisit in my analysis of the Summer of 1985. I could watch it every year regardless, but even more than OMEGA MAN this is a movie that I’ve thought of repeatedly since the pandemic lockdown started four months ago. And sure enough, the movie rings true in new ways in 2020. George Romero knew what he was doing.
Before we get to that, let’s talk about it in the context of ’85. Obviously DAY is a little niche – another one of the many interesting movies coming out on the sidelines, not necessarily trying to capture the culture like BACK TO THE FUTURE or something. In a way it goes hand in hand with THUNDERDOME. Both are by visionary genre directors with the first name George, the less-well-received part 3s in the series each director is best known for, which has new chapters spread across decades, drastically reinventing its world each time. But THUNDERDOME was pitched for a wider (and younger) audience than THE ROAD WARRIOR, while DAY continued on the low budget/super-gory path of DAWN OF THE DEAD. And while THUNDERDOME has a larger scale and far more meticulous world-building than its predecessor, DAY mostly just has advances (huge ones) in its special effects makeup.
It could’ve had both! Romero famously held larger ambitions, but scaled down his original script when he could only get half the budget he needed. According to Cinefantastique, “Set primarily in Florida, the script dealt with a stage in the zombie phenomenon where epic devastation has taken place, and the few remaining humans are divided into various castes with an elite military faction living underground and training a corps of zombie slaves.” As with Bub in the finished film, these undead troops were being fed people. “I was working on the idea of how a revolution only changes the facade of what’s going on in society,” Romero told the magazine.
In their own ways, both Georges present a bleak vision of the world through their apocalypse, but Miller’s is leavened with imagination and even a little humor, while Romero’s is ugly, angry and acidic. Then the films end with a similar type of hope: a small group of good guys flying off to their idea of paradise, where it’s implied they could start a new civilization. I think it’s up to the individual viewer to decide whether they have more faith in a bunch of feral kids and one baby in the bombed out ruins of Sydney, or three adult professionals on a small island.
I mentioned in my previous review that DAY has alot of machine guns in it, fitting for a movie that came out two months after RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II. In substance, though, it’s an opposite of the summer’s biggest R-rated movie. RAMBO has its soldiers feeling exploited and abandoned by civilian leadership, but in DAY it’s the surviving military officers who are tyrannical and stupid, and the civilian scientists are the heroes who are being ignored, shut down and screwed over. The people who want to (and do) use guns to address all their problems make everything worse. In both movies the heroes use helicopters – but in RAMBO it’s to massacre and destroy an entire village, while in DAY it’s to search for other survivors, then to flee to safety.
For some reason it was Rambo’s world view that caught the ear and the imagination of America and Reagan at the time. Hmm. Probly just because DAY was released unrated. And never got a cartoon. It opened on 168 screens (RAMBO was still on 1,385 in its ninth week). But DAY did open bigger than the very enjoyable THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN, even though that was playing on 903 screens. Horror fans had been waiting for this. The people who knew – obviously they knew. By definition.
But what they didn’t all know was what to make of it. Roger Ebert, who had called DAWN OF THE DEAD “one of the best horror films ever made” and gave it four stars, gave DAY only one and a half. He complimented the “marvel of special effects,” but was not so into what he called “overacting,” and “distracting Jamaican and Irish accents.” He says that “as they shout angry accusations at each other, the real drama in the film gets lost.”
When I first saw it sometime in the ‘90s I agreed with all that. And then I rewatched it every several years. And then every couple years. As I discussed in the 2013 piece, the things I didn’t like began to not matter and the things I did like became more and more potent as me and the world and movies all changed. Just like THUNDERDOME, it’s not my favorite of the series, and yet it’s a movie I adore, that has some very distinct qualities unlike DAWN, or any other movie, that at times make it the one I’m most excited to see and to think and talk about.
On this latest viewing my love for the movie has deepened even more, as it becomes more relatable in the era of COVID and Trump. Early in lockdown, when trips to the grocery store seemed especially terrifying and I would put them off as long as possible, I would think of that opening scene where they venture out into the city. They’re not on a supply run, but the feeling is similar – empty streets, garbage blowing around, any sounds of human beings in the distance seeming like a threat.
And “All the shopping malls are closed,” as they say later. Watching it now, it’s the sight of derelict businesses, and especially the movie theater, that really hits me. It’s no longer an abstraction to see them as remnants of a comfort and normalcy we desperately miss. I realized a couple months ago that I love the feeling of being in movie theaters so much that I’m sure I’ll burst into tears the next time I step into one. (Which I don’t think will be any time soon, even if they reopen here.)
Me being me it was important to figure out which movies had been playing in this theater when the shit hit the fan. There are two movie posters displayed, but I couldn’t make them out or find anyone on the internet who had addressed this important issue. I took a picture from the screen to try to make them out:
I did some research, and the various guesses I had – the one on the left reminded me of RETURN OF THE JEDI, on the right maybe BREAKIN’ 2? – didn’t check out. I tried to analyze the shapes, the colors, the diagonal logo. They looked too legit to be for fictional movies, so I thought maybe they really were whatever movies had been playing at the theater at the time of filming. But browsing posters from movies released in 1984 didn’t get me anywhere.
The breakthrough came when I considered the likelihood that they’d choose specific posters that wouldn’t be a hassle for them to license. I looked up the distributor on IMDb, and sure enough I was able to match those blurry blobs with posters for films from the United Film Distribution Company library.
So there you have it. CONQUEST and 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS are to the zombie apocalypse what ONWARD and BLOODSHOT are to the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m not sure what their TENET is.
(I checked in case I could prove that ONWARD and BLOODSHOT actually were playing at the Edison Theatre in Fort Myers, Florida a few months ago, but of course the posters as of the Google Street View in 2019 were of some lawyers, because the whole building was converted into law offices years ago. Nice that they kept the marquee, though!)
We only see that husk of civilization in the opening scene, because for most of DAY OF THE DEAD our living protagonists and antagonists are hidden away in a military base inside a mine. Lockdown. Quarantine. Since I live in a one bedroom apartment I know they have it good. Their place may be underground, antiseptic, grey and beige, but it’s gigantic. So big they have golf carts to ride around in. And they don’t seem to have to worry about most supplies (though they complain about their equipment being out of date, and there’s mention that the booze will eventually run out).
I suppose they would be envious that I have windows. But what I wouldn’t do for a balcony or a porch. They have a whole damn fenced off outdoor area! But they don’t seem to go out there, except to bury the dead and water the marijuana plants. I guess you can’t really relax with all those zombies moaning on the other side of the fence.
The thing I’ve been thinking about the most is that little area that helicopter pilot John (Terry Alexander, THE WEREWOLF OF WASHINGTON, AMATEUR, CONSPIRACY THEORY) has to relax in. There’s a trailer inside the mine and it opens to sort of an artificial backyard deck with lawn furniture, plastic plants, string lights and a mural of tropical paradise. They hang out there, drink and unwind. I keep thinking I wish I had the space and the resources to make something like that. I guess since I’m dreaming I should be dreaming about the real thing, though, huh?
There are little things they do to deal with the stress of their situation, some of them cliches, but all of them, we can now confirm, true. Starting in the helicopter scene we see radio operator Bill (Jarlath Conroy, the undertaker in the Coens’ TRUE GRIT!) taking sips from his flask. Yeah, I feel you, Bill. I’ve gone through much more whiskey than usual. Sarah (Lori Cardille, PAROLE) has a calendar that she uses to cross off the days. And she kind of lovingly caresses its photo of a pumpkin patch. Maybe she misses experiencing the change of seasons. Maybe she misses going outside at all. Probly won’t be visiting a pumpkin patch any time soon.
By the way, does anybody else like to look up Google Street Views of places they’ve gone to on vacation, and just “wander” around the streets? No? Hm.
The scene with the calendar turns out to be a dream, but in the last scene we see her crossing off days on a calendar again, to show she hasn’t given up hope on returning to normalcy. I haven’t been crossing off days on the calendar, but I can’t always remember what day it is. And I do miss being able to go places like that pumpkin patch, along with everything else. I miss seeing my friends, going to bars and restaurants, taking the bus. I lament the occasions I couldn’t properly celebrate, the trips I couldn’t go on, the lack of freedom to act on whims, if I ever want to. Might as well be in that mine.
Of course, they’re not there just for shelter, waiting for things to get better. They’re the attempt at a solution. And that’s one of the aspects of DAY that seems more relevant than usual these days, and that took me by surprise. @tuffgnarl on Twitter recently reminded me of a passage in my DEEP IMPACT review (from when I did a Summer of ’98 series two years ago), where I predicted with depressing accuracy how Trump would deal with a life-threatening disaster:
“To me, these types of movies started to feel scarier during the Bush administration. After Katrina you couldn’t really take it for granted that the government would make a reasonable effort to help out in these sorts of disasters. And now of course it’s terrifying to think about because we know 100% there is no fucking way that Trump would have any idea what to do or how to get sane or competent people on it. He would definitely keep ELE a secret, then accidentally blurt it out, then blame it on Obama and/or Hillary, then say it’s FAKE NEWS and deny he ever said it, etc. Of course he would never be able to build the underground shelter, but if he did, he would use it as a self-dealing scam, and put his name on some shoddy bullshit made by subcontractors who he stiffed, and he would only allow the super rich who bribed him to live there, with first dibs for Nazis, rapists and the flagrantly corrupt. And once they got inside they would all hate each other and would be relieved when it collapsed on them because of all the shortcuts and poor planning in the construction. Or he would’ve forgot to bring water or something.”
That’s pretty close to what we’re dealing with now in the pandemic, but I didn’t really account for the hard-working public servants who would pull their sleeves up and try their damndest to clean up the mess with the people above working against them. Romero did. He’s got Sarah (Dr. Sarah Bowman, to be more specific) and Dr. Fisher (John Amplas, MARTIN, KNIGHTRIDERS) putting up with a whole lot of shit and not giving up the mission. And John and Bill are much more cynical about it all, she accuses them of “not lifting a finger to help,” but they dutifully go with her on a 24-hour mission to find other survivors. It’s all part of an operation “put together in a matter of days,” but what other hope do we have?
Of course there’s also Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty, PORKY’S II: THE NEXT DAY), the one thinking outside of the box and making incredible advances in studying and controlling the zombies. But he’s a crazy asshole committing some serious ethical violations, to put it mildly, so hopefully we don’t have a COVID era analog to him.
Although the tension in our society is not between civilian scientists and the military, DAY really reflects the bitter divisions of the Trump era, and the escalating chaos as the people at top keep getting removed (in this case by zombies) and replaced by increasingly unqualified psychos. We have serious-minded, can’t-believe-these-fucking-people Sarah (a precursor to Ripley in ALIENS) trying to find practical, non-violent solutions, but she’s opposed by a bunch of giggling shitheads who live by the “the cruelty is the point” code so familiar to us today. They say racist shit, they talk about their dicks, they call people bullying nicknames, they sexually harass and threaten the only woman they know. Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato, PULP FICTION) is violently outraged when she tries to walk out on a meeting. “Sit down or so help me God I’ll have you shot!” (Nevertheless she persisted.)
It’s not a military operation, but he tells Private Steel (Gary Howard Klar, HACKERS) to shoot Sarah, then threatens to shoot him if he won’t do it. So he’s gonna do it. Only when John threatens to shoot back does Sarah give in and sit down. Nothing else she could do. So the fascists win.
The guy with the gun, supposedly following orders, doesn’t actually care about his mission to facilitate the civilian science team. Doesn’t feel they’re in this together as a community. He calls the civilians “you,” calls the soldiers “us” and “we” and “my men.” (He abandons “his men” the second the tide turns, by the way.) When he wants John taken into custody he says, “Steel, kick him around a little bit.” Then uses a racial slur.
And he rants about the need to shoot all the zombies. Dr. Logan is a terrible person to deliver the message, but he’s correct when he smugly explains, “We don’t have enough ammunition, Captain, to shoot them all in the head. The time to do that would’ve been at the beginning.”
I think that applies to two of our major crises right now. On the policing front, Rhodes represents the stubborn conviction that the problems of society can only be solved (and will not be exacerbated) by brute force. At the same time, their zombie situation is kinda like where we are with the pandemic. Trump’s catastrophic negligence and sabotage, supported by sycophantic Republican governors willing to sacrifice thousands of their own constituents under the delusional theory that it will be good for The Economy, has racked up 140,000 American corpses, and it’s just getting started. Only when the outbreaks are out of control and the hospitals are overwhelmed exactly like everybody fucking told them would happen, do they start looking into the testing and tracing that they never properly set up, even deliberately interfered with, that’s not as much use now that its out of control. Fuck you. The time to do that would’ve been at the beginning. Like we fucking said.
Sorry. Getting worked up. This is madness.
Think about zombies, Vern. Zombies yanking on intestines. Okay, good. Calm. Phew.
John’s philosophy is arguably nihilistic, but certainly tempting these days. He repeatedly suggests doing what the people in DAWN called “running”: Abandoning their roles in the former civilization and finding a new way to live.
I think Sarah is right to push back, because she believes in what she does. But John’s right too. There’s an attitude among many Americans that you should want to be back to work as soon as possible. Some on the right are angry that there are workers whose unemployment (which is about to end) paid them more than their ordinary paychecks did for a few months. Fuck that! Many people work shitty jobs, they aren’t paid enough, these days they’re being asked to risk their lives to do them. If this nightmare allows them a little vacation, or a little extra cash, they deserve way more than that. Or if they can take advantage of this nightmare, this window of abnormalcy, to find fulfillment they can’t while they’re working every day, they should do that. I’m finding mine by spending all day writing these ridiculously detailed reviews. (You can be the judge if that’s a plus or minus for human civilization.)
John doesn’t agree with the mission of protecting the archive that he says contains the defense budget and business records. He sees abandoning all that as part of his hope to “Start over. Start fresh.” And sure enough, they end up burning it all down. Letting the zombies in. Kind of a romantic FIGHT CLUB notion there.
Personally I don’t want to burn down all of civilization, or lure the ghouls onto the elevator and let them in. John also mentions “the negatives for all your favorite films” being in the mine, which is one of the actual uses of the Wampum Underground facility they filmed in. Come on, man! Can’t we keep some of the good shit? But we sure could use a symbolic escape to the tropical island. We gotta stop all these flesh eaters, and not by throwing them buckets of somebody else’s flesh. We have to have a serious rethinking of everything that got us to this place. If you think we can’t do better than living in a mine with Rhodes making all the decisions, well – all I have to say to that is “Choke on ‘em.”
According to this old fansight on Tripod, there’s a very rare Japanese novelization with a prologue that blames the zombie plague on a comet and connects the story to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD’s Ben and what is meant to be the mall from DAWN OF THE DEAD. In the U.S., though, I don’t think there was anything. (DAWN had both a novel and a fold out poster magazine.)
Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot is the book that’s handed to Bub to see if he knows what it is. (Romero, of course, had collaborated with king on CREEPSHOW, was attached to The Stand for a while and later did THE DARK HALF.) The book was ten years old at that point and had already been made into a mini-series by Tobe Hooper.
Another experiment involves playing classical music for Bub on a Sony Walkman. Though the device had existed since 1979, I notice some of the reviews mentioning it in what might be kind of a “you kids and your fads” tone, sort of like reviews of BLADE: TRINITY would mention Jessica Biel listening to an iPod while hunting vampires.
1985 stylistic note:
Listen to this unused song that’s on the DAY OF THE DEAD soundtrack album and tell me it wouldn’t work for the end credits of RAMBO. It’s a ballad very much in the vein of FIRST BLOOD’s “It’s a Long Road,” and even has the lyric “There will be peace in our world where there was none,” coincidentally overlapping with RAMBO’s actual end credits song, “Peace In Our Life” by Frank Stallone.
July 1985 context notes:
We haven’t done this in a while, so let’s get back to date on what else was going on in the world. My review of A VIEW TO A KILL seems like a million years ago, but guess what was the #1 song for the week DAY OF THE DEAD came out? Yep, “A View To a Kill” by Duran Duran. Cyndi Lauper’s “The Goonies ‘R Good Enough” was at #16, Huey Lewis & The News’ “Power of Love” #21, and Tina Turner’s “We Don’t Need Another Hero” #32. So summer movies were alive on top 40 radio. But also you had Prince’s “Raspberry Beret” at #2, followed by Paul Young’s “Everytime You Go Away,” Whitney Houston’s “You Give Good Love” and Phil Collins’ “Sussudio.” If you want to make a playlist.
It had already been a momentous July. On the 8th had been the WWF’s King of the Ring event, in which Don Muraco had defeated the Iron Sheik in a tournament, and Hulk Hogan had pinned Nikolai Volkoff to retain the WWF World Heavyweight Championship and thwart the spread of communism. On the 11th, after three months of unrest and intense nationwide protests, the Coca-Cola company had given in to activists’ demands to return to their original formula, selling “Coca-Cola Classic” alongside New Coke. On the 13th, the famous Live Aid concerts happened, raising around £150 million to fight the famine in Ethiopia and earning Rami Malek an Academy Award.
In movie theaters, THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN also opened on the 19th. Good movie. Very 1985. Another one with a rock star doing a cool theme song – “Invincible” by Pat Benetar. Also THE MAN WITH ONE RED SHOE (sorry, I haven’t seen it) and a re-release of E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL.
As much as the last 15+ years of pop culture domination by zombies was kicked off by our love for DAWN OF THE DEAD, it could be argued that DAY has had an even larger effect. And that’s specifically because it launched the career of Greg Nicotero, who got his first film credit as assistant to Tom Savini. He also plays Johnson, one of the army yahoos. On the makeup crew he befriended Howard Berger, and in 1988, after working with Robert Kurtzman on EVIL DEAD II, the trio formed KNB EFX group, who did the effects makeup for INTRUDER, ELM STREET 5, HALLOWEEN 5, DR. GIGGLES, VAMPIRES, SCREAM, and all of Tarantino’s movies.
In 2005 they did LAND OF THE DEAD, with Nicotero acting as special makeup effects supervisor, which is when Nicotero took the torch from his mentor to become the reigning king of zombie makeup. Though the movie didn’t entirely hold up for me the last time I watched it, the zombies are phenomenal, with Nicotero continuing Savini’s makeup tradition and combining it with some more advanced animatronic puppetry and digital enhancements. Nicotero has continued to evolve this art across ten seasons (so far) of The Walking Dead, also acting as producer and directing more than thirty episodes.
I learned recently that Ernest Dickerson shot a bunch of the second unit footage at the beginning, like the alligator and stuff. Coincidentally he went on to direct 11 episodes of The Walking Dead. But more notably he was Spike Lee’s cinematographer from JOE’S BED-STUY BARBERSHOP: WE CUT HEADS to MALCOLM X, and directed JUICE, SURVIVING THE GAME, DEMON KNIGHT and BONES.
DAY’s story of untrustworthy military guys and one captive zombie were also blatantly borrowed for 28 WEEKS LATER.
Composer John Harrison, who had also scored CREEPSHOW for Romero – and was the screwdriver zombie in DAWN! – later directed episodes for Romero’s series Tales From the Darkside which evolved into directing the movie version, as well as the 2000 mini-series version of DUNE, the 2009 Clive Barker adaptation BOOK OF BLOOD, and various episodes and movies for television.
Some of the crew went on to big things outside of the horror world, too. Though uncredited, IMDb claims that SUPERBAD director Greg Mottola was an art department intern. And editor Pasquale Buba, after several movies with Romero, cut STRIKING DISTANCE and motherfuckin HEAT. Not trying to be controversial but it could be argued that that is a pretty legit credit in my opinion.
As with the office building in THE LIFT, the mine from DAY OF THE DEAD still exists, and you can show your true fandom by renting office or warehouse space there.
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.