The Curmudgeon


Monday, May 30, 2005

Day of the Dead

George A Romero 1985

Ten years passed between the release of George A Romero's first film, Night of the Living Dead (1968) and its sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1978). Romero said he spent half that time resisting the pressure to make a sequel, and the other half trying to set the damn thing up. Both films were box-office hits; but by the time the third instalment arrived, the public mood had changed.

According to Kim Newman, Romero's "original plan was for Night to depict the beginning of the holocaust, Dawn to follow the complete breakdown of society, and Day to depict a future society in which living and dead have come to terms". Romero's original script depicted a society of underground city states which used trained zombies as soldiers, and ended with the overthrow of this repressive order, the passing of the zombie plague and the establishment of an "ambiguously utopian" new society.

Forced by the vagaries of the film industry to scale down his ambitions, Romero eventually set Day of the Dead at an earlier stage in the story, where the walking dead have clearly overwhelmed the living but the living are too stupid or too inflexible to realise it. Although the film begins and ends in blazing sunlight, almost all the action takes place in an underground military bunker, where a small team of scientists, soldiers and technicians is besieged by hordes of risen corpses. Every so often the soldiers capture a couple of zombies for Dr Logan (Richard Liberty) to experiment upon. Logan is trying to domesticate the creatures. In one case he manages it by removing almost the entirety of the thing's head and hooking its cerebellum up to the electricity supply. The guinea pig turns out to have been the late military commander, Major Cooper: "He's helping us more now than he ever did when he was alive," Logan observes.

Cooper's replacement is Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato), who wears twin revolvers and delivers his keynote rant with the Stars and Stripes on prominent display behind him. His proposed solution to the Living Dead problem is the same one that's been tried all through the trilogy: "shoot the mothers in the head". This is also Rhodes' solution to any other problem that rears its head; when the heroine, Sarah (Lori Cardille) is about to walk out in disgust, Rhodes threatens her with execution. Indeed, throughout the film it is clear that living soldiers are far more dangerous than living-dead flesh eaters; the dialogue scenes between Rhodes, his men and Sarah, the only woman in the group, are often more tense and threatening than the scenes which feature the Living Dead. Neither Rhodes, Rickles nor Steel ever addresses Sarah by name; at the start she is "lady" or "woman"; once things deteriorate, "bitch".

Male WASP heroes, when they occur at all in Romero's work, are rarely regular guys; they include a psychotic blood addict (Martin), a quadriplegic in subconscious symbiosis with a megalomaniac spider monkey (Monkey Shines), and a writer with a serial-killer pseudonym (The Dark Half). In the Living Dead films, all the sympathetic macho men are black - Ben in the first film, Peter in the second, John in Day of the Dead. All three are effective survivors against the zombie menace - Ben is killed, but by a redneck with a rifle, not by a carnivorous corpse. By contrast, Rhodes and his happy band are a sorry lot. Steel (G Howard Klar) has brute courage and, unlike Rhodes, is not homicidally insane; but he is a racist bully who contributes to the deaths of three of his colleagues by refusing to accept Sarah's help on a zombie-hunt. Sarah had offered to replace Miguel (Antone DiLeo), whose lover she is and who is in the process of cracking up, but all she succeeds in doing is annoying Steel and denting Miguel's masculine ego: "You made me look like an asshole out there," Miguel tells her. Rickles (Ralph Marrero), Steel's buddy, is a cackling half-wit with a bulbous forehead who flings at a couple of decayed zombies the singularly redundant insult, "Hope ya fuckin rot!"

But Romero's anti-militarist satire reaches its apex with Bub (Howard Sherman), Logan's favourite zombie pupil. Bub has retained a few instincts from his life before death: he can remember how to use a razor and a telephone, and when Rhodes walks into the room, Bub shambles to attention and salutes him. Logan suggests that Rhodes return the salute, but the captain is lacking in either scientific spirit or military courtesy: "You want me to salute that pile a walkin pus? Salute my ass!" Bub is clearly offended, and it quickly transpires that he also remembers what to do with firearms: a tribute to the thoroughness of the US military's basic training.

Despite being led by the demented Logan, who seems to have regressed to the state of a child pulling insects to pieces, the scientists are a slight improvement on the soldiers. Fisher (John Amplas) and Sarah try doggedly to continue their work despite hopelessly inadequate equipment and Rhodes' despotism; the trouble is that their work is pointless. The world has changed; the zombies have inherited it. This fact is twice pointed out to Sarah by John (Terry Alexander), the Jamaican helicopter pilot. When he suggests, near the beginning of the film, that the only thing to do is clear out, find an island and enjoy the sunshine, Sarah is disgusted: "You could do that, couldn't you. With all that's going on, you could do that without a second thought." John is unimpressed: "Shit. I could do that even if all this wasn't going on." He and McDermott (Jarlath Conroy), the boozy electronics technician, live in the tunnels outside the bunker; it's more dangerous but allows them to rig up a homely shack complete with plastic plants and patio furniture. After Miguel is bitten by a zombie, they protect him from Rhodes' prescribed shot in the head, but the standoff between the squabbling groups in the bunker soon flares into open war. By the time Sarah is persuaded of the need to leave the old ways behind, events have overtaken her.

Day of the Dead came out in 1985, right in the middle of the decade which epitomises almost everything the Living Dead films satirise; and although in many ways the best of the three, it did not repeat its predecessors' success. Twenty years on, Romero has made Land of the Dead, starring Asia Argento, the appetising daughter of Dario Argento, who provided the music and some "creative consultancy" on Dawn of the Dead. It may be that Land of the Dead is the film Romero hoped to make with Day of the Dead; but it would be a mistake to see Day of the Dead as merely a rehearsal for the new film or as a second-best substitute for the one Romero was unable to make twenty years ago. It has virtues enough of its own. Tom Savini's gore effects are among the most hideous and hilarious on film; the performances are good; the atmosphere in the bunker is convincingly oppressive. Even the happy ending manages to combine a jump-inducing shock effect and a cynical directorial shrug.


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