Written and Directed by: George A. Romero
Reviewed by: Brett G.
Day of the Dead is an interesting film to me personally because I avoided the film for years due to the negativity surrounding it. I had always been a fan of Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, so I felt like I had to give this one a shot eventually. Once I did, I couldn’t understand the aforementioned negativity. Sure, the film is full of assholes (and too few bullets, as your good pal Ford Fairlane might say), but I believe this to be an intentional move on Romero’s part, and it’s a move that explicitly reinforces the point that Romero makes in the previous entries: that human beings, not the zombies, are the true monster of these films. This is more clearly made in the characterization of the main characters in Day of the Dead. Whereas the first two films contain some semblance of likeable characters, this film presents humanity on the brink of a degenerative paranoia as the characters feebly attempt to hang on to a world far beyond their grasp. Thus, Day of the Dead ultimately finds Romero both reinforcing and subverting the conventions of his previous works by arguing here that society is ultimately not worth saving.
Romero makes it clear that the world is far gone immediately in this film, as the zombies are shown in broad daylight walking amongst the ruins of man’s former civilization. Usually reserved for the darkness or shadows, we see the supposed monsters here in broad daylight symbolizing their place as sort of false monsters in this film. As the previous films have shown viewers, there is nothing particularly terrifying about the zombies; it is instead the capacity of the human character driven by fear or paranoia that should be feared. We then find our human characters reduced to living in an underground missile silo, and dissention among their ranks becomes a key theme early in the film. This dissention manifests itself in a feud that is reminiscent of 1951 film The Thing From Another World, as a group of scientists (lead by Sarah), intent on discovering the cause of the living dead, clash with a group of high-strung, brutal military men lead by the boorish Captain Rhodes. Like in The Thing from Another World, Rhodes’s focus is purely on survival, and his paranoia even drives him to suspect his own human survivors of dissention. This particularly rears itself in the scene where he swears to shoot Sarah if she refuses to sit and listen to his orders. At this point, viewers tend to side squarely with the faction of science, as the military characters are reminiscent of primitive cavemen who care only about their power, even though they are confined to an underground living. Such a portrayal reveals the tendency of mankind to immediately establish some sort of hierarchy of power even in the face of disaster. This is a theme Romero further explores in the fourth film, Land of the Dead, wherein mankind has emerged from the underground to re-establish cities complete with upper and lower classes, with the former exploiting the latter.
Viewers see the seeds of this planted by Romero in this film, however, as even under such turbulent conditions, the characters here construct a sort of bureaucratic pecking order, with the military firmly entrenched at the top. However, lest viewers think Romero is going to paint a moral picture that is clearly black and white (as he did both literally and figuratively in Night of the Living Dead), we soon find that the leader of the scientific ranks, Doctor Logan, is also clearly taken with insanity, as he will stop at nothing to discover the cause of the reanimation. Left with an unending thirst for bodies, which essentially puts him in the same position as the zombies he is obsessed with, he earns the moniker of “Dr. Frankenstein,” which immediately evokes the madness of Mary Shelley’s character. While Logan’s insanity is not as overtly malicious as Rhodes’s, he comes to represent the futility of recovering a world that has been overtaken by the dead. Logan essentially becomes just as blind as Rhodes, as he is not willing to accept failure, and indeed somewhat fulfills our expectations of the “Frankenstein” motif with his demise. At the end of the film, viewers cannot empathize with neither science nor the military, as both are equally bloodthirsty maniacs that will do anything to recover a world that is irrecoverable.
Sarah’s realization of this fact is essentially the film’s narrative point, as she first refuses to believe that science cannot determine the cause and reclaim the world; however, the all too clairvoyant John blatantly tells her that she “is never going to figure it out,” as he believes that "perhaps God felt [mankind] was getting too big for [their] britches.” While the character of John seems to represent a religious element here, he is ultimately the most pragmatic character in the film, as he is the only character willing to admit that the world as they have known it is long gone, and the only chance they have is to escape and begin anew. At the film’s conclusion, we are seemingly left with the only positive, upbeat ending of Romero’s series to this point, as Sarah and John escape to an island untouched by the zombie population. However, Romero again does not leave viewers off so easily as we find Sarah still intent on keeping track of the calendar, perhaps still showing her refusal to let go of a world lost long ago. Society, then, is decidedly not worth saving, and this action here shows that history will probably repeat itself. After all, the characters here are still as isolated as they were before. Thus, the final images here are clearly deceptive as Romero has lulled viewers into a false sense of hope, as the aforementioned fourth film in the series would show that history ultimately does repeat in Romero’s opinion.
While viewers come to empathize with Sarah during her journey throughout the film, Day of the Dead is ultimately composed of human characters driven to the brink of insanity. Viewers do not find the familiarity of strangers trying to survive as they did in Night of the Living Dead; nor do they find four friends finding complacency while the world around them falls apart like in Dawn of the Dead. Instead, Romero detaches familiarity by showing what happens when man is forced underground and attempts to recover that world that is falling apart. Again, the zombies do not seem to be as immediate a threat as the humans themselves are to each other. Indeed, viewers even begin to emphasize with Bub, one of Logan’s trained zombies. At the film’s conclusion, they are even meant to cheer as Bub plays a part in Rhodes’s demise. This tactic of placing viewer empathy with the “monster” is a tactic not new to the horror genre, as it is a key theme in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and even more recently in Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects. With this scene, Romero finally drives home his statement that humans are the ultimate monster in his films, as viewers welcome Rhodes’s gory dismemberment at the hands of a zombie horde. Indeed, Romero seems to invite us to delight in the various dismemberments throughout the film. No death is lamented in this film, as the survivors in this film are not driven by a communal need to survive (as was the case in the previous films); instead, everyone is driven by an attempt to sustain their own individual needs.
Ultimately, the film stands as perhaps the best example of Romero’s take on the human condition, as the zombies are the less threatening than ever. Instead, Romero’s characters again exhibit the human propensity towards disagreement and incompatibility. Indeed, it would seem that the zombies are more harmonious with each other as they walk as a mindless horde. While Romero used this zombie imagery to satirize commercialism in Dawn of the Dead, he turns his pessimistic eye towards the human characters here. By essentially leaving viewers no side to cheer for, however, he seemingly subverts not only his previous films, but the typical Hollywood narrative. As Michael Felsher notes in the liner notes accompanying the film's DVD, “in a year that saw audiences rally around a pumped-up image of American military machismo in Rambo: First Blood Part II, the insane bickering, backstabbing, and ultimate meltdown of the military figures in Day of the Dead was not a welcome sight.” Furthermore, “the film does not contain the audience friendly comic-book mannerisms present in the more popular Dawn of the Dead, nor does it have the more straightforward tense narrative of Night of the Living Dead.” Day of the Dead is clearly a film without a straightforward plot; instead, it is merely an examination of its characters’ inability to resolve an unquestionable answer. It is easily Romero’s most pessimistic zombie film at this level, as we are not left with the bombast of Dawn of the Dead’s ending; nor do we feel the despair accompanying Ben’s death in Night of the Living Dead. Instead, viewers are left with a pessimistic detachment from the film’s characters and are ultimately ambivalent towards their fate.
Thus, it seems that Romero essentially engages in a sort of revisionism by charging his film with such pessimism. It is not enough that his characters ineffectively deal with the crisis facing them; instead, Romero sets out to punish the characters for their complacency and unwillingness to let go of a lost cause. The battle is already over before the film begins, and, perhaps that is the ultimate tragedy of the film, as the characters needlessly devolve into bickering, psychotic madmen. Though the film seems to present choices or alternatives in the science/military dichotomy, it soon becomes clear that there is only once logical choice: to give up. Of course, this is far too logical and does not suit the characters of the film. Such stubbornness may be a subtle jab at the American insistence to fight in the face of overwhelming odds and defeat. Whereas typical American sentiment would label such a battle to be heroic, Romero clearly exposes it as ignorant. If we read Day of the Dead in this light and consider the current American occupation of Iraq, then it would appear that Romero was about twenty years early in his message here.
As for the film’s treatment on home video, Day of the Dead was among Anchor Bay’s first (and to date only) wave of Blu-ray releases. It goes without saying that if you want the best possible presentation of the film, you’ll want to go with this one (if you have all the necessary equipment of course). It should be noted that the surround remixes contain the edited-for-television soundtrack, while the mono track is the original theatrical version. Anchor Bay previous released a 2-disc Divimax version a few years back that’s full of special features and contains the excellent liner notes cited above. Quality wise, both the video and audio are top notch. In fact, you’d never guess this film is over twenty years old now. While I’d advise you to track down this 2-disc version of the film, Anchor Bay has also re-released the film on its own (without the special features disc). If you haven’t seen this one and don’t want to sink too much cash into this film, that release can be found on the cheap around the web. Either way, I urge everyone to run out and buy any version of this film. Don’t let all the negativity deter you. For me, this is one of the most underrated films in horror history, and is therefore Essential for any fan of the genre.
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