Like an ugly duckling, Day of the Dead took some time to get the love it deserved (and even then it has remained a black sheep amongst its brethren) – a scenario not uncommon to works of art that tell people what they simultaneously need to know and want not to hear. The film was – and to a large extent, remains – a victim of its own implicit place in film history; like the occasionally artful summer blockbuster, Romero’s third "Dead" entry is routinely examined and dismissed less for its own qualities than its “failure” to conform to the expectations unfairly assigned to it sight unseen, here as a zombie movie sequel indebted to two highly lauded works come before. Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead were both brilliant and easily among the greatest horror films ever made, but that Day of the Dead doesn’t follow the expected trilogy arc of capping off its saga with all-out climactic spectacle is hardly an inherent strike against it. Part of this degrading misconception lies in the fact that Romero’s original vision was cut short by budgetary restraints over issues with the increasingly more powerful MPAA rating system, the final result being far from the originally conceived "Raiders of the Lost Ark with zombies", and gore hounds subsequently decrying the relative lack of visceral bloodshed (regardless of the fact that, during its brief moments of splatter, Day features some of the sickest zombie action ever filmed). Similarly, Day is – in the popular sense of the term – a decidedly anti-audience pleaser. Set primarily underground during what appear to be the final death twitches of mankind, the film is quick to dispatch with any practical ideas about escape or happy endings. Welcome to the suck.
It is hardly to their discredit that both Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead are rather accessible in their social diatribes layered upon physically tangible plots of humans survivors struggling to overcome. Whereas those films commented externally on the world around them, Day of the Dead is also a work of deeply internal ruminations, a film that assumes our flaws and, intrinsically, our imminent mortality (whether at the hands of flesh-eating ghouls or each other), and searches for the silver linings amidst what otherwise appears to be insurmountable hopelessness. The remaining survivors of Dawn of the Dead took off in a helicopter already low on fuel, unsure of what awaited them next. Day of the Dead begins with a small cadre of armed survivors looking for more of their kind, traveling up and down the Floridian coast in their own running-on-fumes whirlybird. The situation has only continued its downward slope; according to the estimates of Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty), the dead now outnumber the living approximately 400,000 to 1. Any chance of killing them off is long since fucked; surviving, then, requires a two-pronged approach of re-evaluating our own definition of socialized living and stopping the zombies’ instinctive drive to eat us, rather than stopping the zombies themselves. Unlike Night's evocations of racism or Dawn's attack on consumerism, Romero's zombies here aren't terrorists or AIDS or any single meaning to be interpreted. To this point, my colleague Eric Henderson summarizes Romero’s matter-of-fact approach so perfectly that I simply must recount it here (kudos to him, too, for his brilliant review of the film, which can be largely thanked for my current involvement with the online film community). “With Day of the Dead, Romero is through fucking around with allegory.”
The audience happens upon this quickly thinning group of survivors long after the metaphorical shit has hit the fan, in effect stripping Day of the Dead of the more typical human drama familiar to its genre, replacing it with its own choice existential probing. Not long ago, a group of scientists and military men were haphazardly thrown into a hole in the ground by the increasingly desperate government, in hopes of their finding a cure for the out-of-control zombie epidemic. Their shelter is an abandoned mineshaft locked away from the besieged surface – as one character tellingly puts it, a “fourteen mile tombstone with an epitaph no one will bother to read.” Littered with financial records and shambled vehicles, it is our decrepit society swallowed up by mother earth in an attempt to rid itself of our viral existence. God takes on a very real presence in the film – the zombies a modern flood and our embittered protagonists an unwilling Noah – and, like that biblical tale, Day of the Dead has its own dove and olive branch, though they admittedly take some rooting around to find. Like Kubrick, Romero has been called cynical, even misanthropic, but so too is his portrayal of man’s inhumanity to man unblemished realism lined with a sincere and genuinely optimistic hope for those who emerge from the ashes. In tone, Day of the Dead is his 2001: A Space Odyssey, we but children taking our first steps, stumbling along the way, growing stronger with that which does not kill us.
In genre, however, Romero’s masterpiece is of a radically different equation; rooted primarily in the dark side of 50’s sci-fi earnestness, Day of the Dead is complicated by its pot boiler psychological dwellings. As pointed out by many – usually in a negative light – its characters are largely of the with-us-or-against-us breed, good or bad, heroic or villainous. Here, mankind has been whittled down to the simplest of its elements, each clinging desperately to the order of the old world and the structure – however destructive – provided by a social chain of command. Romero’s anti-militaristic diatribe, though, is but a surface decoration to the film's approximation of 80’s anxieties, and it is no coincidence that the film’s tyrannical soldiers and commanding officers are all of the strictly Caucasian and heteronormative persuasion. As the zombies outnumber the humans, so too does the status quo crush down upon the female, the black, the Spanish, the eccentric, the queer. 12 Angry Men dealt similarly in characters-as-representations but its straight-faced drama apparently made such walking metaphors legitimate in the eyes of the critical community. Forget them; Day of the Dead litters its understandably bickering personas and heady physical spaces with nuances and suggested depths galore, waxed gloriously by John Harrison’s criminally undervalued, sublime musical accompaniments. The first two acts of the film play out as a series of pushes and pulls between conflicting human interests, not unlike religious groups squabbling over he said/she said bullshit while the bigger picture hovers obviously and ominously over their heads. The final bloodbath, then, is not unlike the final judgment day followed by paradise – or a lack thereof.
The film’s many unspoken joys, however, come from the path to this suggested destination. The commanding Captain Rhodes (Joseph Pilato) has gone apeshit at the apparent lack of progress made by the scientists under his care, their unstable working environment and almost total lack of resources notwithstanding. The most promising work comes from the research of the aforementioned Dr. Logan (amusingly called Frankenstein by the rest of the characters), although the soldiers – dick-obsessed and thuddingly literal-minded – are unable to see it. Of his many zombie specimens (rounded up and leashed by the soldiers for his experiments), it is the endearing Bub (Sherman Howard) who holds what may be the key for mankind’s survival. If Dawn of the Dead was Romero’s zombies-as-people shtick at its most nihilistic, then Bub is that film’s spiritual antithesis, an essentially reborn human literally learning to walk and talk again for the first time. Interaction with everyday items such as tape recorders and telephones reveals lingering memories and even – after a tense encounter with the asinine Rhodes – a retained capacity for moral judgment (here, even a zombie knows an asshole when it sees one). Indeed, the film’s characters are predictable in the sense of who will live and who will die, but naysayers of this point often fail to see how these respective paths mirror their individual commitment to or abandonment of a crumbling social order.
Like Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead begins with a character surfacing from the depths of a nightmare, here the leading Sarah (Lori Cardille), whose status as the lone female amongst so many hormone-raging, semen-backed-up males making her an easy emotional point of access for the audience (small critical tangent: could not Day of the Dead – with some minor technical tweaking – easily be the “mineshaft gap” sequel to Dr. Strangelove?). Repeatedly waking up from one surreal nightmare into another, Sarah’s prolonged escape mirrors our own collective social mires, our protagonists ultimately ascending from the hellfire into a heavenly light that purifies them of their penchant for self-destruction. Bub, meanwhile, establishes the first threads of civilized behavior by overcoming of his instinctive barbarity, while the nearsighted Rhodes – in one of the pinnacle villianairy dispatches in all of cinema – runs his empty-headed cockery into the deadest of dead ends. Day of the Dead attacks this central theme of human behavior ruthlessly, almost silently, turning it over time and again like a Rubik’s cube. This deconstruction is so encompassing that the climactic explosion of zombie mayhem – revealing and awesome though it is – is practically an afterthought.
Feature: 31 Days of Zombie!