Day 10: Classics Revisited – Day of the Dead

After posting on the blog yesterday, I immediately watched the last hour of Day of the Dead. I have a funny history with the last installment of Romero’s classic trilogy. I technically grew up during the rise of the internet. However, I didn’t really have much access/experience with the net until I went away to college. My love of Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead was already well established during my early teenage years. Therefore, I didn’t really have much in the way of resources to learn about the films. Sure, I could have gone to the library or local book store and tried to find something, but, to be honest, my love hadn’t burned into the curiosity phase. I was completely content with just repetitively consuming these terrifying and challenging movies. So, you might imagine my surprise, suspicion, and hope when a friend told me that he saw another zombie film by George A. Romero at the video store. To be completely honest, I don’t entirely remember my reaction, but knowing 15-year-old Adam I’m sure it wasn’t gracious. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if I called my friend a liar or, at the very least, told him that he must have been mistaken, as it would have broken my nerd-lording heart that someone new something about the Living Dead series that I didn’t. Well, to my friend’s credit, the next day he rented the movie (I couldn’t set foot into that store, as my parents owned a competing video store (I know, I know, that makes the fact that I didn’t know anything about Day of the Dead that much worse… I had access to resources that most didn’t… but, for some reason, I just couldn’t be bothered… let’s face it, if there were a third Romero zombie movie, I would have already known about it)), made me a(n illegal) copy, and ended up watched it in my room. My initial reaction was equal parts elation and disappointment. I couldn’t believe that I had somehow lucked into an additional hour-and-forty-minute peak into this world that I’d been obsessed with since I was eight. At the same time, something just didn’t feel quite right with the movie.

Since then, my initial feelings of unease have mostly settled into an appreciate for what Romero was trying to achieve and an understanding of the limitations that were forced upon him. Originally, Romero was planning for Day of the Dead to be “the Gone with the Wind of zombie films”, a sweeping epic… but, once again the limited budget came back to bite him and Argento was not there to help him out this time. So, in the end he had to make a much smaller film. With this in mind, I can now sit down and enjoy what he was able to do… though, there are still some issues.

Apart from the opening scene in Florida, where we get to see how the world has been fairing since the zombie apocalypse (not well, if you were wondering) the remainder of the movie takes place in a single setting, an underground, government bunker. I don’t want to rehash the plot here, but certain elements are important as it informs the strengths (and weaknesses) of the film. First, unlike the NotLD and Dawn of the Dead we have a much larger supporting cast. Instead of just a few individuals thrown together due to random chance, we have a government created group of scientists to study the zombies and a group of solders sent to protect them. This means two things. First, this is not really a survival movie, since when we meet the characters they have already secured their bunker. I appreciate that Romero was trying to do something different; it’s a refreshing change. However, it changes the dynamic and the viewer’s experience of the film. Second, the characters are rarely working together. At most parts of the film, the survivors are divided into two factions: the military and the scientists (with a couple of people at the fringes of both). Again, this makes for an interesting and new dynamic. At the same time, it means that way too much of the film is spent with the two groups debating about how to handle the situation. This could have been interesting, but these scenes quickly devolve into people shouting at each other and literal name-calling.

So, at this point, you’re probably thinking that I hate Day of the Dead. Quite the opposite in fact. It’s just that I want to set you expectation low enough, so that if you sit down to watch it, you know what you’re getting in to. This is not a masterpiece… far from, in fact… what it is, is a fun, scary, and solid horror movie. For the most part, Romero wasn’t concerned with social commentary. While he was clearly making a point that pure logic and pure emotion are equally dangerous, it does not form the central through-line like the media and consumerism did in the last two films. Instead, we are again treated to a story about the evils of humanity. Romero is also concerned with expanding on the mythology of the universe he created. We get a lot of scientific examination, which, I personally love. Plus, this leads to the first fleshed out zombie character (pardon the pun) Bub (funny, side note, apparently Bub has a cameo in the fourth season The Walking Dead… I guess now I need to go re-watch that episode… or just google it). At the same time, though, when you start bringing in science to a zombie movie the edges start to get a bit frayed… the true impossibility starts to show… go re-watch the season one finale of The Walking Dead for a good example. I guess the major take-away from Day of the Dead is that everything that works only does so until it doesn’t.

I don’t want to end on that note, so, let me leave you with what I feel are the two high notes of the film. First, Romero, presents us with the strongest female character thus far. Within three minutes we know that Sarah is really the one in charge, the one holding everything together. We don’t get the character development that we saw in Frannie, but that’s simply because we are joining these characters further along their paths. Then there’s the special effects. Romero (well Tom Savini to be more accurate) pulls out all the stops. The odd coloring from Dawn of the Dead is nowhere to be seen. Instead, we get realistic gore… while the other movies were by no means tame, this one is definitely not for the weak stomached. There are gags upon gags. Perhaps the most memorable, at least for me, takes place in the doctor’s (appropriately nicknames Frankenstein by the soldiers) lab. I won’t say any more… but, oh boy, does it stick in my mind.

Well, that’s the end of my journey. At some point (probably sooner rather than later) I may revisit Romero’s second trilogy, but I’m really not looking forward to writing up the third movie in particular. That being said, maybe it’s time to revisit it… maybe there’s more there than I remember. Before that, though, I will probably play a round or two of Netflix Roulette, watch a recommendation and/or another individual classic. I’m also toying with the idea of watching another series, but I’m not sure what that would be. Any suggestions?

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