A tale of nasty body capitalism, and another of a wounded, terrorised family.
Day of the Dead. 1985. Directed & Written by George A. Romero.
Starring Lori Cardille, Terry Alexander, Joseph Pilato, Jarlath Conroy, Anthony Dileo Jr., Richard Liberty, Sherman Howard, Gary Howard Klar, Ralph Marrero, John Amplas, Phillip G. Kellams, Taso N. Stavrakis, and Greg Nicotero. United Film Distribution Company (UFDC)/A Laurel Production/Dead Films Inc./Laurel-Day Inc. Rated R. 96 minutes.
For me personally, though I love each of them and think they’re masterpieces of horror, George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead is my favourite of his first three major zombie films. The post-apocalyptic feel here is even stronger than in the previous Dawn of the Dead and I can’t get enough of it.
Romero dives into more sociopolitical issues again here, as he did with the other two Dead movies. This screenplay deals with the head-butting elements of science and military in a world ravaged by the zombie virus. Most of all, though, this movie really gets down to the nitty gritty, raw side of humanity – what we, as a species, would devolve into, regressing back to a primitive state once the zombie apocalypse begins. Through the military vs. scientist dilemma throughout Day of the Dead, this microcosm of the post-virus landscape in a bunker under the ground, we’re able to see how far humans will go, or better yet how far they can fall. Even further than that, as the good Dr. Logan says “they are us“: Romero tries to introduce a clear example of how zombies are still human, merely men and women reduced to a primitive, less active and intelligent state. So what interests me most throughout this fascinating zombie film is how the line between man/womankind and our primitive animalistic self seems to only be a thin one, a light veneer barely separating the two states.
Romero knows us, better than we’d like to admit.
When zombies have overrun the world, a dozen people – government scientists and military – live in a bunker below the earth. The scientists, led by Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty) and Dr. Sarah Bowman (Lori Cardille), attempt to try and figure out how to battle the zombie virus itself. Although, Logan has some different and perhaps unorthodox ideas about the way to experiment in such things. The soldiers, now under command of Captain Henry Rhodes (Joseph Pilato) – a hotheaded and equally stubborn, violent man – do not approve of what the doctors are doing.
After the isolation of being underground starts to emotionally and mentally unhinge Private Miguel Salazar (Anthony Dileo Jr), the outside world of the living dead manages to break through, coming down below to meet the still-living.
And then, on that day, hell breaks loose.
The opening scene, to me, is one of the things I’ve always loved and found memorable about Day of the Dead. Not sure why, I suppose because there’s a creepy dream-like quality about it which sets the tone: this is going to be a nightmare. And it is, in the absolute correct sense of the word, in the right way a horror film ought to be a nightmarish experience.
Truly, this film is a haunting zombie horror. In my opinion the special makeup effects are best here. Savini gives us amazing gore to soak up. Greatest of all comes quickly, after we’re introduced to the man lovingly referred to as Dr. Frankenstein by the other scientists and the military men, Dr. Logan: a zombie on one of the operating tables leans over, ripping a strap from its arm, and reaching out its guts and innards fall out of the stomach’s cavity onto the floor, slopping in its own mess. Nasty bit! Even better, the dream imagery comes back – like the beginning scene – except much more brutal, and it emulates the zombie’s guts falling out: as Sarah lies in bed, she imagines seeing Miguel similarly lean over with his insides evacuating, then comes back to reality fast. These alone are worth the price of admission regarding special makeup effects. Savini really pulls out his big guns in this movie, taking away the comic book garishness(/awesomeness) from his Dawn of the Dead zombie work, replacing those qualities with equal excellence on top of dirty, disturbing and realistic blood. Not knocking his previous work for Romero, on the contrary – I love it (check here if you don’t believe me). There’s simply a better, more terrifying aspect to the special makeup effects here; while the cartoon-like essence in Dawn of the Dead came a subtle creepiness, here it’s an outright mortifying feeling Savini gives us. Thank you, Tom!
BEST DECAPITATION IN ANY FILM – EVER. My vote goes for a scene around the 1 hour 27 minute mark. A soldier is surprised from behind by a group of the living dead when they pin him down, each grabbing bits and pieces of his flesh, then tear his head off. My favourite part is his scream – as they start to pull the head off, neck separating from shoulders and sternum, his voice gets higher and higher until the vocal cords literally snap off, blood spurting, and the entire head is free. Amazing, amazing special effects here. Such beautiful practical work in the horror genre, really a crowning achievement as far as I’m concerned. And not just that: it’s nasty as all hell.
Human beings are shit. Romero knows this is at least partly true. One part of why I love the scientist vs. military conflict here is because each side is presented as having their faults or their wrongdoings; not every individual is bad, but neither whole side is presented as totally in the right. For instance, though the military men are all pretty much horrible human beings, except for Miguel (he’s just gone absolutely insane), the scientists are not all rosy and perfect either – Logan and his experiments are a little barbaric, mostly considering he’s opted not to tell the soldiers about using other dead soldiers for extra meat. So sure, the scientists are ultimately trying to do the right thing, in whatever way it can be accomplished. There’s still an unethical aspect to the way they’re going about the mission. What Romero does with this plot is show us how not all soldiers are culpable in the terrible actions of soldiers in general, just as not all scientists are working towards the greater good most scientists try and work towards achieving. Every side has their good souls, every side their bad. But the bad ones – man, does Romero ever show us how bad they can get when the going gets tough.
Generally it’s the sense of isolation which gets to me about this Romero masterpiece – it has so much suspense and tension because of its setting, generally lending itself to an air of eeriness. Night of the Living Dead was located mostly in the farmhouse, so there is a real sense of tightness, the characters enclosed and withdrawing further into the house at times. Dawn of the Dead even dared to get a little more claustrophobic because even within the mall, once zombies started to overrun the place there was nowhere for the survivors to go, or at least limited options of where to start running. What’s devastatingly intense at times about Day of the Dead is the fact they’re all underground. Even with the helicopter up above and a way to fly off, there’s still a ton of zombies trying to get in. Plus, once Miguel does the unthinkable after his craziness reaches its peak, the zombies filter into the underground bunker. So it’s WAY WORSE than the mall in the previous movie because so far below ground there are less ways to escape than a huge building aboveground. Add to that all the human elements of Romero’s wonderfully written screenplay, you’ve got yourself a backload of tension and unnerving suspense happening on an almost constant basis.
Another 5 star film from George A. Romero. I’m huge on his films in general, not just the zombie work. But god damn it if he doesn’t make the greatest possible use of the living dead, adding solid horror to solid writing concerning sociopolitical issues to create a unique brand of horror sub-genre storytelling. Not every last piece of his zombie movies are full of issues – some times it’s just great and vicious horror. Though, it’s hard to deny how well Romero captures the issues of the day. Moreover, still as I write this in 2015, the issues continue to stay relevant: we’re almost always living in an era where the brutality of the military and politicians with their want for war come up against more rational, scientific approaches to the world around us. Day of the Dead is a masterful horror film in general and one of the greatest zombie films ever made. Personally, it’s my favourite of Romero’s Dead series because there’s a wholly unique quality to it even above his others. If you’ve not yet seen this, please do so. Particularly if you are big into zombies – you’ll see a lot of this film’s influence in other more contemporary zombie movies, as well as The Walking Dead of course. And really, it is just a solid, effective work of horror well worth your undivided attention.
Dawn of the Dead. 1978. Directed & Written by George A. Romero.
Starring David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger, Gaylen Ross, David Crawford, David Early, Richard France, Howard Smith, Daniel Dietrich, Fred Baker, and James A. Baffico. A Laurel Group Production. Rated R. 127 minutes.
George A. Romero started the modern zombie craze with his 1968 horror movie Night of the Living Dead. Ten years later, he came back swinging with Dawn of the Dead. Full of iconic moments, even iconic zombies themselves (see: Hare Krishna zombie), Romero gives us an even more nuanced, darker, and at times funny, bit of horror cinema.
A lot of people nowadays are hugely into the zombie sub-genre. For good reason, as these Dead films from Romero, including the ones after it, are a whole lot of horror fun. The reason why Dawn of the Dead is so celebrated and loved after all these years is because not only does it do a fine job creeping you the hell out, like Romero’s 1968 film, even more than that it again explores social issues. Soon as the characters in this movie make their way to a mall, hordes of zombies trying to get inside, you can tell there will be some kind of commentary on Romero’s part. Dawn of the Dead is written incredibly well, with good characters, dialogue and action, as well as the fact Goblin does the soundtrack, Dario Argento worked on the music/editing, and master of special effects Tom Savini supplied all the zombie nasty work. This is one damn good piece of zombie horror and it’s no wonder we’re still talking about it today as much as we do.
After the dead reanimate and start to feast on the flesh of the living, a group of people hoping to survive make their way via helicopter to a large mall: Stephen “Flyboy” Andrews (David Emge) and Francine Parker (Gaylen Ross), along with two SWAT team members Peter Washington (Ken Foree) and Roger DeMarco (Scott Reiniger). Upon arrival, they try and set up camp finding a safe room to spend their nights, food for sustenance and any other various items they can manage to whisk away from the stores in the mall. Only problem is the zombies have filled up a nice majority of the shopping complex, so they’ve got to maneuver their way around the huge building efficiently, and quietly, as humanly possible.
But when Roger gets infected by the zombie virus, their situation changes. With the situation inside the mall getting worse with every passing day, the group is forced to confront other options; that is, if there are any left.
One of the most intriguing things about this movie is how Romero expands on the idea of a post-apocalyptic United States of America. During Night of the Living Dead, we do see a microcosm of the aftermath with all the sheriff’s boys out hunting ghouls and seeming to have a grand ole time, plus there are the news reports and all those aspects. However, with Dawn of the Dead this plot allows Romero to give us a bit bigger of a look at the post-zombie society. Big part of that is the mall itself.
When they first arrive, Francine questions why the reanimated corpses would be at the mall, to which Stephen replies “Memory of what they used to do; this was an important place in their lives“. Later on, as the group listens to a radio, a commentator talks about remembering past lives and how the actions of the zombies are merely them working out what they once used to do. The thing I find interesting, the social aspect of Romero’s screenplay, is how he chose the mall/shopping complex itself. It speaks volumes about human society just in the number of living dead wandering around the building and outside; it’s evident how involved we as humans are in consumerism already, but Romero – back in 1978 – was already on to the fact we’re creatures of habit, as well as creatures of leisure wanting to shamble our way into the mall, mindlessly picking away at the things inside (a.k.a “shopping”). So I think, again like his first zombie movie, this one can be considered relevant today, if not even more so than it was on its original release. The way we consume things as a society of people has gotten out of hand, especially now in the post-2000 world. Say what you want about Dawn of the Dead, or the films which follow it/the one preceding it, Romero infuses his horror with a ton of commentary. Not every last shot is done like this. Overall, though, you cannot deny Romero’s zombie films encapsulate social products of their time and even then they go on with their strength for years. I won’t be forgetting these films any time soon, if ever.
I have to talk about Tom Savini. As someone whose love for horror grew out of older films intent on using practical makeup effects, before CGI ruled the industry, Savini is one of my personal gods. Honestly, even the first three films he worked on show off his immense talent – from his uncredited work on Bob Clark’s Dead of Night and putting his hands into the loose Ed Gein inspired Deranged, to doing fun stuff on Romero’s 1977 unusual yet awesome vampire flick Martin, to the stellar makeup/special effects he did in this film. I won’t go through the man’s entire filmography, but I’m just trying to show you how immediately Savini made an impression on the horror movie industry. In fact, Romero wanted him to work on the original ’68 Dead film. Unfortunately at the time Savini was called off to war; he actually applied some of the nastiness he saw during the Vietnam war as a combat photographer to the special effects/makeup he did in films. Luckily, they got together for this movie and did a ton of bloody, fun horror work.
The look of the zombies alone is great. There’s a satirical part in how they look, as they’re all zombies yet representative of our own zombie-like qualities as humans. So while I’ve seen some horror fans wonder why the zombies are blue-ish coloured, I think there’s a wickedly dark comedic edge to their look. At the same time, they’re still fucking terrifying! Not just that, the head shots and the flesh eating and all that rotten business works well. Most of all, it’s the blood itself I find so wonderful. There’s nothing like a good looking bit of blood on camera and something about the blood in Dawn of the Dead is at once cartoon-ish and simultaneously nauseating: its rich red makes it appear almost like paint, like comic book blood, and the thick texture of it seeping out of chests/heads/et cetera has a visceral, raw essence which is kind of gross. Needless to say, without boring you too much to death on my thoughts about the effects overall, without Tom Savini this would not at all be the same type of horror film. Furthermore, I’d venture to say the zombie sub-genre wouldn’t be as rich and magical in terms of effects if Savini hadn’t done such good work with Romero here. This movie has influenced so many filmmakers and endlessly captivated the minds of legions of horror fanatics, and will continue to until the end of time.
It’s hard to say anything that’s not been said before concerning Dawn of the Dead. One thing is for sure, though, George A. Romero is the man who gave us modern zombies and this film is an intense piece of horror cinema which dives further into the zombie lore he created in 1968, as well as touches on aspects of human nature from friendship in close quarters to a reflection of our inherent consumerism as people in the 20th century. 5 stars, right through the roof and to the sky!
As I said in my review of Romero’s first zombie feature, Day of the Dead is actually my personal favourite. All the same, each of the three first films in his Dead series are perfect in my mind and neither are technically better than the others, at least that’s how I see it; I just prefer Day over the others, something more apocalyptic and foreboding about its plot.
Regardless, Dawn of the Dead constantly affects me, it always entertains and I love the two-disc DVD set this came in, which I ordered a few years back now. Lots of fun features on the release, as well. If you’re a fan it’s worth the cash. If you’ve not seen this: smarten up and watch it for Halloween.