Zombies are pretty much everywhere now. It seems that about 10 years ago a few zombie films turned up around the same time, some sort of critical mass was achieved, and since then it’s been impossible to escape the buggers. Partly because they run now, but also because it’s every company’s lazy idea of making a quick cheap buck. A zombie film practically writes itself. People are holed up some and zombies are coming for them. A zombie comic can give a writer like Robert Kirkman a medium to explore the nature of civility and the extremes people will go to in a long form format, and also become crazy rich of TV and merchandise deals. Zombie games allow developers to minimise A.I. scripts and provide the player with the context to shoot whatever they like. Most zombie related materials these days are pretty bottom of the barrel tripe. Those that excel, such as The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later and The Last of Us do so because they don’t just look at zombies as a chance to show some gore. They see the zombie setting as a chance to hold a mirror up to ourselves in the kind of blunt, uncomplicated way that seems to be required these days. They do this all because of one man and the groundwork he laid in three fantastic zombie films. I end this zombie week with, possibly, his masterpiece, Day of the Dead. Click the link for braaaaains.
Day of the Dead follows a small group of survivors, possibly some of the last left in the world, who are stationed in an old underground military base. A certifiably mad doctor named Logan (Richard Liberty) has been experimenting on the undead attempting to find a way to make them less of a threat through rehabilitation. His research is greatly opposed by a stir crazy military group, who had been sent to oversee the research, led by the quite insane Captain Rhodes (Joseph Pilato) who wishes to shut them down and leave the base behind, possibly after killing anyone he doesn’t like. Such as those that aren’t as insane as he is. Caught in the middle of the two groups is Dr Sarah Bowman (Lori Cardille) who has been pushed into a position of intermediary. She struggles to keep the group from falling to pieces, killing each other whilst completing the research. Along with this her partner Private Miguel (Anthony Dileo Jr) is slowly losing his mind from stress, the resident pilot and communications team members seem to take a stance of getting involved and Sarah is suffering from nightmares due to the traumas she has encountered. Seems she has a lot on her plate. Sure hope nothing zombie related happens that could cause trouble/disembowelment.
Romero had intended for this Of The Dead film to be his Gone With The Wind, as in a story of wide scope and scale. Due to wanting his film to not go through the usual ratings process the films budget was slashed and the budget halved. This didn’t stop him from producing a complexly layered horror film though. The scope of the storytelling, the relationships of the characters and the situations they’re in are all wonderfully complex and very well crafted. Sarah’s life is one that is constantly under threat from the marauding zombies above ground, to her research in the lab to the militant Rhodes that frequently threatens her with violence to get his way. The way the groups conflict with each other is a masterclass in telling this kind of “collapse of society” story.
At the centre of this story is a zombie called Bub (Sherman Howard) who is the star subject of Dr Logan. Bub shows signs of remembering his past life, remembering what objects such as razors and books were for. We learn that he may have had a military past as he salute Rhodes and shows signs of understanding weaponry. Most importantly, he doesn’t crave the flesh of the living because Logan has managed to find a way to suppress Bub’s base instincts. What Logan has been doing turns out to be yet another source of tension, another parallel for the collapse of humanity. Bub represents the building of a new society and, other than a few characters, he’s depicted as being one of the most civilised in the story. He shows that communication can be key to maintaining order. Some argue that he breaks a lot of zombie rules, but that ignores two facts. Zombies are shown to have memories in Dawn of the Dead and, George A Romero can do whatever he wants with zombies.
Whilst the dramatic tension is what holds any good zombie film together, you really came for some good old fashioned blood and gore. The film features Tom Savini showing just what he’s capable of with the right tools at his disposal and, as such, features some of the most creative and brilliantly violent deaths in horror movie history. There’s spilled guts, twitching severed herds and some lovely flesh ripping bites. An effect he appears to have perfected in this film involves having a actor ripped limb from limb entirely in one shot. No clever cuts to hide the trickery. Certainly no digital effects to remove body parts, the film pre-dates that technology by some way. Just good old fashioned ingenuity and enough blood to cover any potentially rough patches. A personal favourite of mine is when a character’s head is torn from his neck as his face is still moving with screams of terror. It’s an effects achieved with a lot of clever little amalgamations of techniques that combine to create the sort of effect that sticks in your mind.
This isn’t to say that the film is about gory deaths. The vast majority of gory moments happen in the final 15 minutes. The core of the film is entirely in it’s character drama in much the same way as The Walking Dead TV series is. Only with a lot less avoiding eye contact and English men playing Americans. The fact the film maintains your attention with ease for the majority of the run time with barely any zombie attacks shows just how good Romero can be at times. Like many horror directors, not every film he makes is a masterpiece, but when he gets it right, he really gets it right. I will always maintain the Dawn of the Dead is the best in his zombie film series but would not argue with anyone that said the same of Day of the Dead. Of course, if you say Diary or Survival are the best, I’ll tear your frigging eyes out.
Day of the Dead picks up it’s theme of societal breakdown brought on by a breakdown in communication ad runs with it through it’s full 100 minute run time. It’s takes a $3.5 million dollar budget and presents you with a film that looks like it was made for many times that. The effects alone feel like the work of a large scale studio production. Even for effects made in 1985 they still hold up today, although they could do with a little less of Romero’s light everything method of shooting. Romero proved with his initial three zombie films that he was capable of addressing strong themes whilst satisfying the gore and horror fans. Day of the Dead is an example of his skill at it’s most focused. It may not have quite as much to say as Dawn of the Dead but it handles the drama and the escalation of tension so well that Day of the Dead becomes his most accessible and expertly crafted of the original trilogy.