In honor of the birthday of the zombie maestro himself, George Romero, this week's Retro Review focuses on the original Day of the Dead--the most troubled and somewhat unfairly maligned of the director's classic Living Dead trilogy.
Day of the Dead was a movie that really tanked when it first came out, even getting beaten out critically and financially by Dan O'Bannon's zombie spoof The Return of the Living Dead (and rightfully so, since it is a superior movie). Yet there was a lot of reconsidering that went on in later years, and I think later generations of horror fans were in part responsible for the film's reputation being raised.
I enjoy it very much, and always have. I don't consider it to be the horror gem that Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead are, but I always found it to be a very strong, disturbing and intelligent horror flick nonetheless. I think a big part of why later fans embraced it, however, is the fact that it has the most vivid, realistic and plentiful gore of any of Romero's films. And while I don't think this should be the end-all and be-all of a horror movie, it should be noted that Tom Savini probably did the best work of his career for this one.
Romero movies have never been acclaimed for their dramatic performances, and Day of the Dead is probably the nadir of that trend. Lori Cardille, Joe Pilato and the rest of the gang stand around screaming obscenities at each other is almost akin to bad drama class exercises. But let's face it--we forgive Romero that. OK, the guy may not be the best dramatic director, or maybe he never had the clout to draw the finest actors. No matter. The film has much more to recommend it.
For one thing, there is the one truly remarkable performance of the picture--the finest in any Romero picture, if you ask me. I'm talking, of course, about Bub. Howard Sherman crafts the single most memorable zombie of all time, and one of the most striking movie monsters ever put to the screen with his powerful, nuanced work in the role of the first zombie who becomes sentient. Every scene he's in is magic, particularly his interactions with Dr. Logan in the lab. Combine that with the single greatest individual makeup Savini ever created, and you have a character worth cherishing.
Pilato, though hammy as all hell, also does a very good job of getting us to hate his guts. And its those same guts which get graphically torn from his body in the film's climactic orgy of cannibalistic violence. Back in those days, Romero was able to totally circumvent the ratings board, and boy does it ever pay off here. As much as I do enjoy his latter-day zombie flicks, I do miss the outrageous eviscerations, I will admit.
Unfortunately, one of the problems with not playing ball is that funding is also hard to come by. For that reason, Romero infamously had to scale back on the ambitious vision he had for Day of the Dead, and the finished product is highly truncated from what the original script called for. It's a claustrophic little flick, that actually has more in common in that regard with Night than it does with its more recent predecessor Dawn. And in this way, it works. Romero manages to deftly spin his tale of the final breakdown of humanity in this little bunker. It really feels like the final progression in the downfall of the human race that has been going on up to this point (although the much later Land of the Dead would somewhat negate that).
Some find Romero's social statements to be pretentious or tired, but I say you have to put it in perspective. Yes, it may be a bit tired for Romero to still be hitting same notes some 25 years later, but his messages were bold and much-needed when he first made them in the late '60s to mid '80s. In an era when filmmakers' handcuffs were finally removed completely, he was among the first to use the horror genre to make real statements about our own world and society--something the science fiction genre had been doing for decades.
And with Day of the Dead, he really drives the hopelessness home. This is a far more depressing film than the sometimes tongue-in-cheek Dawn of the Dead. There is very little, if any, black humor here. Humanity has royally screwed itself, and Romero seems to be mourning the end of the race (a far cry from his more cynical opinion of 20 years later, when he seems to make the case that the zombies deserve the Earth more than we do).
In short, I'm glad that Day of the Dead has been reappraised since 1985, but I do think this has caused it to swing a bit too far in the other direction. No matter what the gorehounds say, I will never consider it Romero's best zombie film. It is, however, a damn good zombie movie that should be viewed by anyone who wants to see a passionate, intelligent horror director do his thing. And Bub, the modern-day Frankenstein Monster, will always have a special place in my heart.
Happy Birthday, George!
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