Monday, October 26, 2015

Review: Day of the Dead (1985)

Day of the Dead (1985)

Not rated

Score: 4 out of 5

Day of the Dead has a reputation as the least of George Romero's original Dead trilogy, focused more on Tom Savini's graphic special effects than on its story, and when compared to the nigh-unimpeachable classics that are the original Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, it's not hard to understand why somebody might be disappointed. It's a movie that would be seen as a standout classic for any filmmaker, and indeed it is, but coming from the man who revolutionized the horror genre and almost single-handedly invented the zombie movie, it feels like it should've been so much more... and indeed, reading the original script for this, it could've been. The victim of severe budget cuts thanks to Romero's decision to release the film unrated and unedited, Day of the Dead is a fairly compromised vision compared to what the filmmaker was originally planning. It's a testament to what Romero was able to pull off in spite of it all that it doesn't really feel like it. The plot isn't as engaging as Night and Dawn, but great characters still make this film feel alive, and with some of the grisliest gore effects ever seen in a zombie movie to this day, gorehounds will also get their money's worth. This may not be in the top percentile of all-time great zombie movies like its predecessors are, but it's still in the same ballpark.

While Night and Dawn both took place in Pennsylvania, Day is set in Florida, in an underground storage facility for civilian boats and RVs that, as the world started collapsing, was hastily turned into a bunker by the military. Now, it's several years into the zombie apocalypse, and the zombies have conclusively won. Not only is civilization gone, but the surface is all but scoured of human life, with only masses of zombies inhabiting the streets. Contact with Washington was lost long ago. Only a dozen people are still alive in the bunker, divided into two camps: a small contingent of soldiers led by Captain Henry Rhodes, and a team of civilian scientists led by Dr. Matthew Logan who are studying the zombies in the hopes of finding a cure, a way to train them, or some other way to neutralize them that won't involve consuming the limited supply of ammunition available. Tensions between the soldiers and the scientists are building as people die and morale drops, with the soldiers frustrated at the scientists' lack of results and the scientists equally frustrated by their lack of proper equipment and support. These tensions reach a boiling point as Rhodes and his men get a closer look at Dr. Logan's experiments, particularly the fact that he's training a zombie (which he's named "Bub") to start behaving like a normal human again and recover its memories.

Perhaps one of the big reasons why this film doesn't hold up as well as Dawn of the Dead is the fact that its satire and social commentary (long a feature of Romero's films) is comparatively dated. Whereas Dawn used the zombie apocalypse to explore race relations and consumerism, two topics that are still quite relevant in today's society, Day is satirizing the state of the American military, a subject that's evolved dramatically in the last thirty years. The soldiers portrayed here are a spent, demoralized force that's all but given up, having been beaten into the dirt by years of losses against the zombie horde, and frequently at odds with the civilians in their midst -- in other words, the popular image of American servicemen post-Vietnam. Even at the height of the Reagan years, when military spending skyrocketed in response to the Red Menace, Americans' faith in their armed forces still had not recovered from the defeat in the jungles of 'Nam. The press at the time dubbed it "Vietnam syndrome", an anti-war mood among a public fearful that another major combat operation would get bogged down in years of quagmire, and it was only really overcome after the rousing success of Operation Desert Storm. However, therein lies the rub: since the First Gulf War, and especially since the War on Terror, the attitude towards the US military has shifted to one of reverence. The age of "Support Our Troops" yellow ribbon magnets is in the past, but even the most anti-war individuals tend to have the utmost faith in and respect for the soldiers themselves, even if they disagree with the people sending them to fight and the reasons why they're fighting. If Dawn of the Dead were made today (not counting the surprisingly good, if loose, remake from 2004), much of the meat of the film would probably be at least somewhat familiar, but if this film were made today (not counting the godawful, in-name-only remake that somebody shat out in 2008), it would be almost wholly unrecognizable.

This isn't a bad thing, mind you. Sure, the messages of the film don't remain as resonant as those of its predecessors, but the quality in the production means that it's still easy to place oneself into the mindset that produced it. It's a nice companion to Aliens, both of them great horror movie takes on the Vietnam War -- in this case, focusing on the aftermath instead of the actual fighting. And a huge part of that comes down to the characters. Rhodes and his men are consistently on edge due to cabin fever and the creeping knowledge that, no matter what happens to them, their mission is already lost. Rhodes in particular stands out as one of the great zombie movie bad guys, partly due to the fact that, for all his villainy, he gets a surprising amount of nuance and justification for his actions. He may be a major-league asshole and borderline crazy, but he genuinely does care for his men and hates to see them die (at least, until the big finale where it's every man for himself), he's frustrated with the scientists' pie-in-the-sky ideas and lack of results, and he is legitimately outraged when he finds out that Dr. Logan is experimenting on fallen soldiers (something that's revealed to the viewer early on, so it's not much of a spoiler). Logan, meanwhile, is a mad scientist stereotype on the surface, but he too has motivations beyond just "for science!" He genuinely believes that, with the military strategy having completely failed to contain the zombie pandemic, studying the zombies and finding a way to control them (no matter the cost) may be the only way to save the world. It's the struggle between civilians and the military applied to a zombie film, and while both sides have legitimate arguments, neither comes out looking good. And on the sidelines, you have two of the only three really heroic characters in the film, the helicopter pilot John and the radio operator McDermott, two civilians who regularly go out searching for survivors and always come up empty. They see both the soldiers' and scientists' missions as futile, and have taken to holing up in one of the many abandoned RVs that fill the complex, living for themselves rather than trying to save a world that's already lost. They eventually win over the bunker's sole female inhabitant (and the last hero of the three), the disaffected scientist Sarah Bowman who's sick of all the fighting, and plot their own escape while letting the army and the scientists tear each other apart.

Ultimately, the way the story wrapped up felt a little too neat and happy, and overall it's not as tight as it was in Dawn, especially with its raft of often-annoying side characters among Rhodes' men. (Pvt. Steele especially could get on my nerves, and I couldn't wait to see him die.) Still, it's better than 90% of the zombie movies out there, with all the main characters being great at making me either like them, or hate them for all the right reasons -- and at times, the line could get blurry. The cast is remarkable all around, composed of a motley crew of unknowns. Special mention goes to Bub, the intelligent zombie that Dr. Logan has been training, a theme that would come up again in more depth in Romero's return to the genre, Land of the Dead. He's arguably the most unique zombie ever put on screen who's still inarguably a zombie, and his journey parallels that of the protagonists and villains in how he comes to realize who he is, for lack of a better term. He only gets a few scenes, mostly in the middle and end of the film, but he steals the show in every one.

And speaking of the zombies, the gore here is outrageous. Seriously, this is one of those movies that you can easily watch purely for the gore, and you will not be disappointed. Every gunshot has tons of blood spurting, nearly every zombie kill has guts pouring out of the victim and limbs getting torn off, and if that wasn't enough, you also get gross medical horror courtesy of Dr. Logan's experiments on zombies. Day of the Dead is one of the all-time gorehouse greats, and it's got more than a few creative frights to go along with it, in both the jump scare department and in the slow dread of characters being cornered by zombies with no way out. The synth score is also a standout, adding a creepy, ominous, doomed feel to most of the events that transpire and that much more punch to the scary moments. Romero is still in top form here as a director.

The Bottom Line:

It's not perfect, but it's still one of the better zombie movies made, even if it's not really one of the best. It suffers in comparison to its predecessors, true, and it could've and should've been better than it was, but it's still a blast to watch, especially for those of you looking for pure thrills and chills over story and depth.

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