Sunday, September 2, 2007

#20: Day of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1985)

It may seem odd, at first, for this movie to be on a list of neglected horror films. Most horror movie fans have seen it. However, there are a lot of good reasons for Day of the Dead to be there. George Romero's original script for the film was much more ambitious and expansive, but he was forced to scale it way down when a portion of the financing fell through. Compared to its two predecessors, Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, which were critically acclaimed and financially successful, Day of the Dead was critically reviled and a box office flop (except in New York and Pittsburgh, the former Romero's birthplace and the latter the city in which he grew up and where he still lives). Why did this film initially inspire such a negative response? I don't know, but I have some ideas. First, the film's location is dreary and ugly. Set in an underground bunker, the location lacks the visual texture of the first film's graveyard and farmhouse and the second film's shopping mall. The characters are mostly cartoonish, stupid, loud, piggish, selfish, and/or weak. The film's overall tone is more defeatist and corrosively misanthropic than its precursors (though I would never call this film in its entirety either defeatist or misanthropic). Finally, it indicts American culture in particular, and humanity in general, as idiotic, destructive, and murderous. In effect, it is a film that says to its audience, "Hey dumbfuck, you're guilty." No wonder it didn't take mainstream America by storm. Honestly, it's possibly my least favorite of the three (excluding the fourth film, Land of the Dead, from a couple of years ago. It's still too new for me to consider alongside the others, and I need to see it a few more times), but since all three are among my favorite films, that's not much of an insult. I've seen it four or five times now, and it improves dramatically each time I see it. Only the late Ralph Marrero's performance as Rickles grates on my nerves (he overacts so dramatically he makes "D.C. Cab" look like a Bresson film). Otherwise, this is a great movie.
In this third installment, the zombies have almost completely overtaken the country. A small group of scientists, military personnel, and private civilians are working for the government in the aforesaid underground bunker, experimenting on the zombies and going out on reconnaissance missions to, so far unsuccessfully, find other living humans. The military commander has died, and his second-in-command takes over. He's a moronic fascist who hates the scientists, but he has a few good reasons. Several of his men have died procuring zombies for the scientists, and the chief scientist has gone a little nuts, engaging in bizarre and pointless experiments on the zombies' body parts. He's making progress rehumanizing one zombie, named Bub, but has mostly gone over the edge. The remaining military men are troglodytic bullies, excepting one, who is having a nervous breakdown and growing increasingly unstable. The only sympathetic characters are a female scientist, her male colleague, a Jamaican helicopter pilot, and his assistant, a smart and empathetic, though deeply alcoholic, Irishman. Looking over that laundry list of likable characters, you may think Romero is pounding your head with an unsubtle PC message, but you would be wrong. Romero is an old-fashioned lefty liberal hippie, but he is also a pragmatic realist who values common sense over everything else. He is deeply pessimistic about the direction the world has taken and the death of sixties idealism and failure of its political movements, but he has a lot of empathy for his fellow man and woman. His strong characters are almost always minorities: women, blacks, immigrants, gays, Latinos, intellectuals, the physically and/or mentally disabled, alcoholics, pragmatists, the damaged, the lost, the forgotten. These characters are never condescended to or made superhuman. They all have flaws, too. But the no-big-deal directness in which they're presented is respectful, honest, and thought-provoking. Few filmmakers have as integrated a group of actors as Romero consistently does in his films, though Romero never makes a self-serving point of it. There are plenty of ugly, hateful, and stupid characters in Romero's films, too, butting up against the others. It is this struggle between his innate pessimism, disgust, and negativity and his still-powerful utopian idealism that makes his films so damn interesting. If someone asked me what fictional films provided the best sense of what American life was like in the second half of the twentieth century, I would, without hesitation, point him or her toward Romero's living dead movies. He's not just a great horror filmmaker. He's a great filmmaker, period. And he's got a great sense of humor. (See, for example, the zombie checking his blood pressure in the mall's blood pressure machine in Dawn of the Dead or the clown-suit wearing zombie in this film, complete with big red nose and floppy shoes.)
Getting off the soapbox for a minute, I want to also mention that Romero's films also consistently have the best gore, blood, and guts in the genre. Special effects whiz Tom Savini outdoes himself in Day of the Dead. You get shovel decapitations, eyeball gougings, disembowelments, exploding heads and guts, and torsos ripped in half, all created with love by Savini and his talented crew. God bless those guys. George Romero for president!

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