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Thursday, February 4, 2010

Retro Review: Day of the Dead (1985)

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!

16 comments:

Uranium Willy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
gord said...

Still my favourite of the series. Certainly not the best, but it's the one I watch the most. SO many similarities to Alien 3 in both my enjoyment of (the extended edition anyways), popular reception, and feeling of the film as well as its development.

Uranium Willy said...

I was lucky enough to actually see this in the theater when it was released. It was in San Antonio Texas. Great experience. I also got to see Dawn of the Dead when in it originally played. Saw that one a few times. In the theater and at a drive in Lexington Ky. I am foggy, but it seems that same summer Taxi Driver came out. I was in college at the time and those films have certainly left a lasting impression me. Day of the Dead is still my favorite Romero zombie flick.

Bill @ The Uranium Cafe

B-Sol said...

I can totally see the Alien 3 analogy. Another flawed but unfairly maligned third film in a horror series!

gord said...

And while I would never watch it say more than twice at the most, or actually score it above a 2/5, I find that Halloween III is my favourite of the original series sequels (H20 is clearly the best, but as it ignores the events of 4-6, I count it as a new series/reboot), even over the 2nd one which involved all the players from the original. 4-6 are just terminally boring and ridiculous, and remove any and all the mystique surrounding Myers created in the first film, though I have yet to see the hard to track down alternate cut for Curse of Michael Myers.

I'll also admit to enjoying Godfather 3 while we're disclosing our love for maligned '3rd in the series' films.

J.D. said...

To say that DAY OF THE DEAD is the weakest of Romero's first three zombie films is still saying something because those other two or so amazing. I really like DAY and you're right about it being some of Savini's best work. The head ripping scene still gives me nightmares.

I could be mistaken but hasn't Romero since said that the scope of LAND OF THE DEAD was more what he was originally shooting for with DAY?

Robert Ring said...

I totally agree, B-Sol. I also like the irony of how the zombies (well, Bub at least) are becoming more human while the humans are losing their humanity.

Savini's work, as you said, is top notch here, especially with the "scream" kill (for lack of a better term -- you know which one I mean), as well as the "Choke on 'em" kill.

Speaking of "Choke on 'em," you probably know this, but just in case you don't, that line was improvised against Romero's preference. Joe Pilato wanted to do it and -- my memory is fuzzy here -- either Romero flat-out said no, or Pilato never asked Romero because he knew he would say no. But since the effect was difficult and expensive, they could only do it one time, so Pilato knew that whatever he did would end up in the final cut. So, as we all know, he did it. Thus, "Choke on 'em!"

B-Sol said...

Gord, I always thought GF3 wasn't as bad as its reputation. Unfortunately, the problem is that it's a pretty good mob movie following after two of the greatest films ever made. Also, Sofia Coppola is just wretched...
J.D., I do think that was Romero's thinking with Land, that it was a way of making up for his perceived creative failure with Day. And I will now blaspheme here and say that I do prefer Land.
Robert, I'm so glad that scene did make it in. It's one of mine and my dad's most quoted movie lines! Also, as has been mentioned here a few times, Savini's gore effects at the end are just jaw-dropping. Proof of the results of good old-fashioned practical effects ingenuity...

Robert Ring said...

Oh, yeah. Definitely glad the line made it in.

the jaded viewer said...

Your right B-Sol, to come after Night and Dawn was a tough thing to do but the satire here came off the weakest. Sure it calls into question humanity's survival but the power aspect comes into play even during an apocalypse.

The fact Land dealt with class issues is a brilliance of Romero's blending of satire and horror

Anonymous said...

I always found Day of the Dead to be the crappy work of a depressed lunatic. Not only does he present every human being as an asshole with little to no brain, but also tries to make the viewer root for flesh eating zombies, including the sub-human Bub. This is the clear example of an individual who hates humanity and himself as a part of it....Should he want to live in a zombified world, I recommend he moves to Cuba or North Korea, where everyone is a zombie, same clothes, same absence of individual thought, little to no compensation over work, a place where his movies would have never existed and freedom is shattered.
That's the land of the dead he shouts for in every movie...

B-Sol said...

Interesting insight, Anonymous, and I can't say i completely disagree. I'm also put off by Romero's increasingly bitter resentment for humanity, but I found it really came to a head in Land of the Dead, much more so than here.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

George A. Romero's "DAY OF THE DEAD" is THE greatest horror movie of all-time, of that there is no question.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

Return of the living Dead is a laughable joke in comparison to Romero's supreme masterwork, the only good thing about it was when Linnea Quigley took her clothes off.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

B-Sol, have you noticed how "Land of the Dead" has also been re-appraised over the last 7 years, people are realising that it to is a much better film than they had originally thought.

B-Sol said...

There are certainly a lot of people who would put "Day" on their all-time list. I personally enjoy ROTLD more, but that's just my own wacky taste. Linnea Quigley did kick-start my puberty, however.

Nice observation on Land of the Dead. I haven't noticed it, but I hope you're right! I think it's a better film than Day of the Dead.

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