Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Shocktober Revisited: Four Reasons Day of the Dead Get a Bum Rap

Between watching movies for "review" purposes* and working on essays, I tend to throw movies on before bed, parsing their running time out over a few days. The last such movie was George Romero's Day of the Dead, which has the reputation of being the "lesser" entry into his living dead series. Rather than give a full-on review, I thought I'd dust off "Four Reasons" and give you my take on why that reputation is undeserved, even if Day of the Dead may not live up to the lofty expectations from Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead.

1. Tom Savini at the top of his game + Greg Nicotero = Best Zombie Effects Yet: Tom Savini gets a lot of credit for his effects work in Dawn of the Dead but I've always found the "blue" zombies to be a bit distracting. They're also unintentionally silly, which lends itself well to the "comedy" parts of Dawn of the Dead but leave the menace of a world overrun by the living dead greatly diminished.

Thankfully, Day of the Dead (mostly) drops the blue-skinned dead in favor of more appliance work. Operating on the notion that these zombies have had some time to decay, Savini and Nicotero (later of KNB Effects) swing for the fences and craft some really elaborate and unique makeup jobs. One of the first zombies you see doesn't have a mouth at all, and they get crazier from there. Guts spill out, limbs are hacked off, and brains are exposed for research before the film ends. Oh, and then there's the death of Captain Rhodes, a kill echoed in Shaun of the Dead with Dylan Moran. The effects team bring their A-Game to Day of the Dead and for my money the movie has the best zombie makeup "gags" of the series.

2. Bub - Whether you love Land of the Dead or hate it, the central plot point (sentient zombies) doesn't exist without Bub. For the first time in any of the Romero series, the living dead have a face. Howard Sherman manages to keep Bub, the zombie that learns and "remembers" from feeling like a bad story direction without ever making him too human. Bub is still a zombie; he still eats flesh and is a threat to everyone in the facility (especially Rhodes). And yet, there's a glimmer of hope in an otherwise hopeless situation that the living dead are more than a mass of oncoming death.

Land of the Dead addresses this more directly (and some, including the Cap'n, would say more ham-handedly) by pushing the evolution of the dead in isolation further. The precedent Bub set in Day of the Dead allows Romero to pursue this idea, even if he bungles it a bit in the twenty year gap.

3. Desperation - This is where I disagree most with critics of Day of the Dead; many say that the film is nothing but people arguing for 90 minutes and then a zombie invasion to clean up, but I take another position. If you follow the progression from Night to Dawn to Day of confusion / survival / desperation (and take it further to "adaptation" in Land of the Dead), then Day is the necessary "dark" chapter in the series. It lacks almost all of Dawn of the Dead's cautious optimism and even the last second escape for Sarah, Johnny, and McDermott is more "now what" than Dawn's triumphant chopper ending.

Day of the Dead represents a pocket of humanity that sees an increasingly hopeless situation that they can't see a way out of. For the scientists, research is slow and equipment is diminishing. For the soldiers stationed to protect the scientists, they see men dying for what appears to be no reason. There's no outside world to contact and no Fiddler's Green to escape to, so they're stuck with each other, frustrated and underground. So yeah, I can understand tension bubbling over into Rhodes' profanity-laced tirades. His men are there to babysit people who seem to be doing nothing.

Day of the Dead might get a little too dark and the fights a bit too repititious (there is, after all, only so many things Romero can show us in the underground facility) but I find that the film returns us to the looming threat of a mass of undead largely missing in Dawn of the Dead. The film is a more extreme take on Night of the Living Dead's basement scenario and I think that it sobers the "fun" of Dawn of the Dead in a way people weren't expecting.

4. It's the last really good Romero "dead" film - Say what you will about Land of the Dead but I'd hardly put it up there with the "original trilogy." (The less said about Diary of the Dead, the better.) Day of the Dead takes great pains to expand the collapse of society that Night of the Living Dead sets up and Dawn of the Dead spreads, and even if the scope of the film was drastically cut, I think that Romero conveys the fall of man better here than in his subsequent films. If Land of the Dead was more about the world outside of Fiddler's Green, I might be more kind to the movie. That opening sequence was about as interesting as Land ever got, and it had more to do with what Day sets up than anything to do with the crew of Dead Reckoning.

I'm not saying that Day of the Dead is at the top of my "dead" list; in fact, it still ranks behind Night of the Living Dead and possibly Dawn of the Dead. That doesn't mean, however, that I consider the film to be Romero's red-headed stepchild of the zombie series. The film is nowhere near as bad as people like to say it is, and the effects are easily better than anything in Dawn, Land, or Diary of the Dead. The acting is a little rough, the movie is a bit repetitive, but I dig the dream sequences and thematically I find it to be quite consistent with what came before (and after). Day of the Dead gets a bum rap, but not one the Cap'n thinks it deserves.

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