Friday, July 21, 2017

Stay Scared - DAY OF THE DEAD

Normally around this time of year, the week of the San Diego Comic-Con, I would tap into the nerdgeist and talk about a superhero movie, like I did last year with SPIDER-MAN 3.  I’m breaking that tradition (of the one time I did it) because an even bigger—and considerably sadder—event derailed my plans, the death of director George A. Romero.  Romero made a profound contribution to cinema, horror in particular, and he is an incredibly important artist to me.  He created biting commentary under the guise of blood soaked genre spectacle.  His movies didn’t focus on the monsters or the madness, but on how normal people cope with an impossible situation.  He literally wrote the book on how to make a modern zombie film, and inspired countless folks to pick up a camera and give it a go.  He was the first to send me down the horror movie rabbit hole with the ultimate "job from hell" parable, DAY OF THE DEAD.  

The Capsule:
Sarah (Lori Cardille) has a rough working environment.  She is a determined, confident woman in a male dominated occupation.  Her co-workers attitudes towards her range from dismissive to openly hostile.  Even though she does not have the resources she needs to effectively do her job, her unreasonable boss, Rhodes (Joseph Pilato), keeps demanding results.  Her co-worker Logan (Richard Liberty) is a loose cannon who's ¨off the book¨ projects could get them terminated.  Her relationship with a resentful boyfriend (Anthony Dileo Jr.) is falling apart.  As if all that wasn’t bad enough, she is also surrounded by thousands of walking corpses who want to eat her. Yes, it’s hard to be a woman in a (dead) man’s world.

DAY OF THE DEAD wasn’t my first Romero film.  I was traumatized by NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD on TV as a wee youngster, and CREEPSHOW (also on TV) shook me up a few years after.  It was DAY that had the most impact on my cinematic tastes, however, and it happened long before I’d even seen it.  Back in 1985, when the movie came out, I was a total pussy when it came to blood.  No matter what kind of movie it was, I would cover my eyes at even the hint that something gross was coming.  I had a visceral reaction to the thought of viscera.    

So imagine when I saw DAY OF THE DEAD on the marque of my small town theater, followed by the rating of X.  It was the first time I ever realized a movie could be rated X for violence.  Additionally, the only trailer for the movie was a teaser showing one scene, the opening dream where an entire wall full of arms burst out at a woman.  That was creepy enough, and apparently it was the only thing safe enough to show on television.  I was horrified by the thought of what that movie held in store, and completely obsessed by it.  If R rated gore was too much for me, what would happen if I saw X rated stuff?  My head would explode like that scene in SCANNERS that I never watched but knew was there.

Eventually, I decided the only way to deal with my mounting anxiety/fascination was with flooding therapy.  I forced myself to watch all the gruesome scenes I had avoided in movies like JAWS and ALIEN.  To my surprise, I found that nothing I saw on screen even remotely compared to the orgy of blood my imagination filled in while my eyes were closed.  Incidentally, I didn’t just embellish the gore of horror movies, I did it with everything.  Do you remember that ridiculously extreme decapitation-by-rotary-saw-yoyo scene in OCTOPUSSY? If you watched in my brain you would.  I was an unconscious gorehound all along!  

After that revelation, I began to devour horror movies.  NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREETS, FRIDAYS THE 13TH, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRES, EVIL DEADS, an entire wonderful world had opened up and I could stomach it all.  It was like I discovered I could see a new color.  No matter how excessive, bloody or innovative the effects got, they still couldn’t hold up to my ghastly imagination.  Finally it was time for the one that started off the whole experiment, DAY OF THE DEAD in all its X rated (technically Unrated) glory.  And my imagination said, “Fine, we’ll call this one a draw.”

Anyone familiar with Romero’s work will know that the effects, which are superb, are only part of what makes the violence so effective.  Romero was a master of atmosphere, and more specifically, mood.  DAY has the bleakest, most claustrophobic mood of his films.  The tone is set perfectly right from the start.  A helicopter touches down in the deserted street of a Florida town.  In case you haven’t seen the preceding films, all the backstory is beautifully summed up by the headline of a discarded newspaper, “THE DEAD WALK”.  The search party, including Sarah, Miguel, pilot John (Terry Alexander, sporting a fake Jamaican accent), radio man McDermott (Jarlath Conroy, sporting a real Irish accent), attempt to make contact with anyone left alive.  Aside from a few lounging alligators, all they find are zombies.  The party’s reaction is not of fear, but of deep disappointment.  There is no one left to rescue.

This is the only one of Romero’s zombie films (and possibly any zombie film) where no additional characters are introduced after we meet the initial roster.  The entire crew of the underground research facility has been there since the project was founded.  Communications has been cut off and their numbers have steadily dwindled without a single government or civilian replacement.  They have searched 100 miles up and down the coast without finding any survivors.  The bikers from DAWN OF THE DEAD might have been a bunch of assholes, but at least they were alive.  There is a real sense that these guys could be the last living people on Earth.  Just imagine being stuck at work with the biggest jerks at your office, and multiply that by the rest of your life.  See what I mean about bleak?

Ask most people—even Romero fans—about DAY and they will probably go right to the overacting.  Which is valid, as Joseph Pilato attacks his role as Rhodes like a Doberman digging into bunny.  I don’t consider that a bad thing.  Pilato’s performance only ratchets up the claustrophobia.  Rhodes is so virulently unpleasant the zombies start to look like better roommates.  I don’t think DAY gets as much social commentary credit as Romero’s previous films, which is a bit unfair.  It’s metaphor my not be as important as calling out racism in NOTLD, or as self-reflective as DAWN’s satire of commercialism, but DAY OF THE DEAD’s take on the soul crushing futility of bureaucracy was just as appropriate for its Reagan era release.  

Sarah and Fisher (John Amplas) try to find a way of reversing the zombification, even though it is clearly too late.  Doctor Logan is super excited about domesticating the zombies into pets just like his star pupil, Bub (Sherman Howard), but his one on one training technique amounts to moving a beach one grain of sand at a time (while the rest of the sand tries to eat you).  The soldiers care only about orders and accomplishing one bullshit directive after the other.  Rhodes is constantly threatening to cancel the project if the scientists don’t provide him with results, as if the apocalypse was a war game that could be called off.  This blind dedication to their roles might provide a sense of purpose and a way of ignoring the reality of how truly fucked they are, but it also makes them waste the only precious resource they have left, their lives.

Only the contract workers, John and McDermott, have the right idea.  They stay away from the main facilities and have made a little oasis amongst the RVs and speedboats and other useless artifacts tucked away in storage.  John doesn't get a line as good as Ken Foree's "When there's no room in hell," but he does see through the delusion that their mission is going to fix the world.  He tries to convince Sarah that the best thing to do is for them to take the helicopter to an island and spend the rest of their days getting back to living.

Of course, Sarah is the worst workaholic in the bunch, because she has to be.  She is by far the most competent, driven, and fair character in the movie.  Without her, the entire compound would tear itself apart.  As frequent readers know, I love films starring ass kicking women.  I tend to highlight the literal ass kickers, fighters like Salma Hayek's Everly or Geena Davis' Charly Baltimore, but Sarah may be an even more impressive character.  Though she's able to defend herself from the dead and the living, her strength comes through in attitude alone.  Sarah takes no shit.  She is the only female in the facility, potentially in the world, and she is surrounded by knuckle dragging brutes toting machine guns.  It doesn’t faze her. Even in the face of their constant sexual innuendo and not so veiled threats, she stares every one of those motherfuckers down.  She even tells the insecure dictator Rhodes to go fuck himself (I'm paraphrasing, her actual line was "Yes sir, fuck you sir!").  He has to order one of his flunkies to shoot her before she backs down, and even then it is just to avoid a WILD BUNCH style firefight between the camp’s factions.  She does allow herself a few vulnerable moments when she is alone with John and McDermott, and she is obviously anguished to watch her boyfriend Miguel crack up under the stress, but she turns the badass back on with the flick of a switch.  

As usual with a DEAD film, the zombies are an ever present symptom of the larger problem. Keeping with the bureaucratic metaphor, they would be the paperwork.  A staple in zombie movies is finding a descriptor so the characters don't have to use the word "zombie".  They have been called "walkers", "biters", "infected".  DAY keeps it classy and calls them "dumb fucks".  Occasionally there is a spectacular one, like the jaw-less, tongue lolling beauty from the opening, but for the most part, Romero keeps the make-up simple.  He lets his taste for satire show with the occasional novelty zombie, though.  In DAWN he had a Hari Krishna zombie.  This time we get a football player zombie, a ballerina zombie, a cigar chomping zombie, and a clown zombie.  They are charmingly goofy reminders of how absurd the whole thing is.

Clearly, Romero has so much more going on than just gut munching gore.  Holy shit, though, the gore.  Greg Nicotero, who did make-up effects along with Tom Savini (in addition to acting as a soldier and a soldier’s head), has created more technically impressive gags in the decades since, but the gore in DAY has not lost its punch.  Much of the impact has to do with the setting.  Blood under the flat, harsh florescent lights of the compound has a disturbingly realistic look.  The sterile environment of Dr. Logan’s lab, along with his clinical detachment at vivisecting a moving body, give all his scenes an dank verisimilitude.  All the blood and guts seem like something you could see in a hospital if you poked your head into the wrong room.

More importantly, the actual (non-zombie) deaths are incredibly brutal.  With the exception of Rhodes, who totally gets what he deserves (and a legendary last line), I kind of felt bad for the soldiers.  True, they were racist dickholes, but without Rhodes pushing them around, all they would have done is smoke pot and tell dirty jokes.  It’s hard not to feel just a little sympathetic when one of these poor schmucks is getting his face peeled off.  The one that that still gets me is not so much due to the visuals—which are gross enough—but the sound.  One dude gets his head pulled off by a mob of zombies, and his scream is pitched up as his vocal cords get stretched out.  It’s those extra anatomical considerations that really bring the heebie jeebies.  

[Spoiler Ahead]  The irony is that Romero’s darkest movie also has his most optimistic ending.  George really makes us sweat before we get there, though.  As Rhodes makes his escape plans, he tosses Sarah and McDermott, unarmed, into the dark cavern where the zombie test subjects are corralled.  Even when a pistol packing John goes in to help, all of the intercut scenes of bloody soldier slaughter give the distinct impression that no one is getting out of this one alive.  Surprise!  After a jump scare at the helicopter, Sarah awakes from her bad dream on a peaceful beach.  John and McDermott are there too, fishing and soaking up the sun, without a dumb fuck in sight (although it would have been sweet if they had taken Bub along).  All of the same questions about the state of the world are still unanswered, but these guys are done asking.  They are making a new life and will enjoy it for as long as they have left.

Romero seemed to have taken that message to heart.  From the couple of times I met him and the stories I’ve heard, the man really enjoyed his life.  He loved talking with his fans and trying new ways to entertain them.  “Stay scared” was the classic line he added when signing pictures or posters or DVDs at horror conventions.  I think it was his way of telling people to wake up and appreciate life.  We certainly appreciated his.     
Farewell George.

C Chaka


  1. Very well written homage & retro to Romero. Thoughtful observations.

  2. Thanks so much! That was a very personal one for me.