It’s always bittersweet when the October Horror Movie Challenge is over. It marks the end of a horror fan’s greatest and best-loved month, but it also comes at great relief for some (including me). The minimum requirements for the Challenge are sometimes even too much for some genre fans (including me), who get burned out on watching all this terror. I recall one Challenge in particular that left me in a funk until December. I’m not saying this happens to everyone, and I’m not saying this as a deterrent to participating in or attempting the Challenge, I merely say this out of personal experience. At the same time, there’s a great and ever-growing community of participants with which to interact, discuss and debate horror films, which is a grand and wonderful thing to have. The best moments come from discovering new-to-you movies, and also when you rediscover an old favorite, particularly when you see it in a new light. This happened on a rewatch of George Romero’s third entry to the Dead series, Day of the Dead.
DAY OF THE DEAD (1985)
Director: George A. Romero
Stars: Lori Cardille, Joe Pilato, Terry Alexander, Jarlath Conroy, Anthony Dileo, Jr.
Country: United States
Civilization is all but over, and a group of people are tasked with trying to find any survivors of a ghoulish outbreak that began months or even years ago (the script keeps this vague). They are working on finding a cause for why people are returning from the dead to eat the living. It’s a futile endeavor. We know it, and they know it too, but they still keep going, not unlike the ghouls they study. They are soldiers, civilian scientists, helicopter pilots – and they are all at the breaking point. Day of the Dead is George Romero’s most tense, unrelenting, and depressing film. It would be a slog, were it not for a crackerjack cast and perhaps the best effects work Tom Savini has ever put on screen. Oh, the gore is amazing here, more realistic and intense than anything from the previous two Dead films.
Set in an underground military bunker, Day of the Dead centers on Sarah (Cardille, daughter of “Chilly Bill” Cardille, who appeared in the original Night of the Living Dead as a TV news reporter), a scientist who is trying to figure out what causes the dead to rise again. Another scientist, Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty), is convinced that while the ghouls are running on instinct, they do have a sort of primal memory of their former lives. This, he believes, means that the undead can be retrained into civilization, and he has a prize pupil as his proof – Bub, who when given tools such as a razor or a gun, displays an alarming proficiency for their proper use. This discovery terrifies Captain Rhodes (Pilato), who has been made leader of the base by default when Major Cooper died. His objective is to destroy the undead, all of them, but the Major made a deal with the scientists to carry out their experiments in relative peace, and so Rhodes begrudgingly complies. However, he wants to see some results, and when he finds out what’s being done with the bodies of his soldiers, all hell breaks loose.
Day is probably the most complex of the first three Dead films. Night was fairly straightforward: survivors bicker in a farmhouse and are picked off one by one. The characters there are like pieces from several different puzzles that don’t exactly fit each other. Dawn was similarly simple: four survivors clear out a mall, then are forced to protect it when a crazed biker gang raids their stronghold. It’s a prolonged siege film, broken in half by the mundane life within the mall. Day carries a larger cast, broken into three groups, and the relationships between each of the three are intertwined – Sarah is in a relationship with Pvt. Salazar (Dileo, Jr.), one of Rhodes’ men who is on the verge of having a complete mental breakdown. The other men are like rabid dogs, barely contained by their master. Logan presents a calm, rational facade, but Sarah soon learns that he’s no longer stable when she sees what’s happened to Major Cooper since his death. He and Rhodes are two sides of a coin – both feel as though they are in control here, yet neither truly are. The helicopter pilots John (Alexander) and McDermott (Conroy) have largely removed themselves from the inner workings of the bunker, yet are crucial to the entire operation, as they are the only ones who know how to fly that whirly-bird. They’re the only means to escape, and Rhodes knows it.
For all the drama that’s going on, Romero never bogs us down for too long with scenes where nothing happens. Each sequence peels back another layer of skin for us to explore the inner workings of people living in a pressure-cooker situation. The tension is full steam ahead from frame one. There are a few moments of levity: Sarah’s visit to the pilots’ remote paradise that’s almost shocking in how it compares to the concrete and metal military base; Logan showing Sarah and Dr. Fisher (John Amplas) the various tasks that Bub can perform; McDermott’s oft-repeated refrain of “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph” (usually said before swigging from his flask). These are all so seamlessly woven in to the rest of the film that they break the tension just enough for us to catch our breath, before the film takes us right back into hell.
And that’s what Day of the Dead is like: a kind of hell. It’s largely set underground, in a place that is both coldly sterile and cavernous and full of terrible creatures. Hell is being ripped apart over and over again. Hell is having to choose a slow death, or blowing your own brains out when suicide is against the very core of your being. Hell is exhaustion and mental trauma and the very real chance of no escape, or that it was all a dream, but waking up never really happens. The relief that comes at the end of Day is almost palpable and so welcome after being put through an experience like that. It’s an entirely different feeling from the end of Dawn of the Dead, where there’s a sense of riding off into the hope of a new day, without the same kind of buildup. This is really where Romero missed a great connective lead-in to the next installment – end Dawn on a downturn, prepare people for the utter hopelessness of Day, and THEN end it all on a relative high note. But that’s hindsight, and really, we have a set of films that have an incredible lasting power over decades. There’s not much to complain about there.
Even though there are six total Dead films from Romero (and there are always rumors swirling of more), I like to think of them as two wholly different chunks of cinema. In the first three, the social commentary seemed so effortless, so ingrained that the films didn’t get bogged down in THE MESSAGE. I can’t speak for Diary of the Dead or Survival of the Dead since I have yet to see them, but in Land of the Dead, the message became the film, and I think Romero’s sense as a socially conscious director overshadowed what might have been another legitimate entry to the series. Also, I think Land came too late, and Romero was too far separated from the original three to make any kind of relevant statement. That said, I think Land is a fine enough film, it just feels too far away.
But I digress. Day of the Dead is, in my mind, the conclusion to an informal trilogy made before its director got too wrapped up in his own self-importance. I love George Romero, but sometimes I think so does he. That said, Day is perhaps his best film, better than fan-favorite Dawn of the Dead, and an improvement on Night of the Living Dead. Romero never made a more coherent film, and certainly not another one that has the power to grab you right where it counts. For that alone, he deserves every respect given him.
This is from HorrorHound Weekend March 2012. It’s ya’ best friend (that’s me!) and “Beef Treats,” a.k.a. Mark Tierno! I’ve gotten the chance to meet Mark a couple of times and he is a super-cool dude. If you don’t know, “Beef Treats” was one of the featured zombies in Day of the Dead. Mark is still active in a variety of projects, and he’s probably one of my favorite people I’ve met at a convention. Nice guy!