Thursday, October 31, 2013

Shocktober Revisited: Day, Land, Diary, and Survival of the Dead

*2013 Note: This was originally the conclusion of Cap'n Howdy's "March of the Dead" from a few years ago. I've chopped out some bits that aren't terribly important to move ahead with the conclusion of the series If you're looking for other entries to "March of the Dead," here's the entry for the many versions of Dawn of the Dead, and here are my thoughts on the 30th Anniversary travesty, erm, "Special Edition"*

I don't know how much more I could say about Diary and Survival of the Dead, my history with Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead don't have much in the way of anecdotal stories, which leaves me with one story to tell about Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake*.

I suppose I saw Day of the Dead on VHS, shortly after renting Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, although my earliest impressions of the film are scant: the opening - that desolate street somewhere in Florida (?) that flooded with zombies (and a crocodile), the hands through the wall gag that Romero uses to both call back to Dawn of the Dead, but also to twist around our expectations of "reality." I also remember the machete to the arm, Bub, the zombie torso reduced to almost nothing but a brain, the holding pen, and the even more upbeat ending on a tropical island.

Subsequent visits to the film, on DVD and Blu-Ray reminded me how much the military vs. science debate plays into the film, but also how less simplistic I remembered the film being - I always seemed to wander into Day of the Dead thinking that Joe Pilato's Rhodes is a cartoon cut-out villain, only to discover that Rhodes is at his wit's end in the film. His soldiers have been assigned to protect the scientists, who assured the government (or what existed of it before Day of the Dead begins) that they would find a cure. Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty) is more interested in rehabilitating the dead one by one, and when he starts pilfering military corpses, the soldiers reach the breaking point.

I understand that Day of the Dead is the least "imminently watchable" of Romero's first zombie trilogy, and it's not rewarding or packed with goofy moments like Dawn of the Dead, but with time I've found that I like the film more and more. Oh, I never saw the remake. Sorry.

Land of the Dead was long awaited, and the Cap'n was not the only person excited to see Romero return to his stomping grounds, and while the excitement was palpable, I still had nagging doubts while I continued telling others how "awesome" the film was. It wasn't the setting, or even most of the story, which I really like: a world where the dead have completely taken over, where humanity is rebuilding but not on their terms, and the film was a glimpse of how people would adapt once they lost the proverbial "zombie war."

I liked the extension of Bub's evolution, crossed with the reason the dead wandered into the Monroeville Mall, into a slowly developing sentience among some of the living dead. Was Big Daddy a little silly? Yeah, maybe it does sound like he's saying "Duuuuude!" when he growls, but there was something to him teaching the butcher zombie to cut down that wall, or the way he organized the dead to avoid simply being slaughtered. Romero hit the reboot button after Land of the Dead, so we never saw where that evolution would head, but not even that is the sticking point for why I have trouble sitting down watching Land of the Dead from beginning to end.

The problem, as I can surmise, is the cast: everyone seems to be giving the film a "B" movie effort when Romero is clearly trying to make the most of major studio backing. Simon Baker seems to be trying, so does Asia Argento, but I can't get past John Leguizamo and Dennis Hopper play variations of characters they play all the time. Robert Joy's Charlie is another matter entirely, a character I only hate slightly less than Scott Wentworth's professor in Diary of the Dead.

When Professor Murder and I went to see Snyder's remake of Dawn of the Dead, we ran into some mutual friends who were there to see the other movie we considered seeing, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Perhaps our allegiance to zombies sent us to Dawn of the Dead first, then later to Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman's memory-wiping romantic drama; either way, we swapped our reasons for seeing the respective releases, then went to see the subtext-free, fast-zombies, not-afraid-to-be-nihilistic-ending remake of one of the most admired horror films in the last fifty years.

If that quick succession of descriptors makes it sound like I didn't enjoy Dawn of the Dead, I'm afraid I'll be disappointing you. Of the remakes made starting with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and, well, yet to end but one can hope with how awful the A Nightmare on Elm Street butchering, I put Dawn of the Dead up there with The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha as one of the better re-visiting's of horror films. Yes, it essentially lacks substance, but Snyder does manage to create momentum, slow it down and drain out hope, re-instate it, and then send everything to hell again during the closing credits. It remains the only film by Zack Snyder that I like, let alone enjoy, and while it may be Dawn of the Dead lite, I'll take it over what Platinum Dunes vomits into theatres every spring.

Honestly, I've said all I can say about Diary and Survival of the Dead in my reviews: I haven't watched either film since, and I did honestly try to take the films on their own terms instead of pre-judging the films. They're both terrible, obvious, and at times thunderingly stupid, all the while failing to generate the slightest amount of tension, scares, or decent performances. Is it possible I'll come back to them down the line, as I did with Day of the Dead, and appreciate more? It would be nice, but somehow I don't see that happening.

Sorry to end Shocktober on such a dour note, but Romero's second trilogy is almost uniformly underwhelming, a pale reflection of his first three "dead" films. Romero is currently working on another "dead" film, and while I've burned my hand two-and-a-half times, hope wins out over being jaded. There's always the chance of recapturing the old "magic." In the meantime, that's the history the Cap'n has with Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, Dawn of the Dead ('05), Diary of the Dead, and Survival of the Dead.

* For Tom Savini's Night of the Living Dead remake, please go here. For the wretched 3D remake, go here.

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