Halloween Countdown: Day of the Dead

A quickie on the least appreciated Romero zombie picture.

Day of the Dead, by Robert Horton

The 1985 midpoint to George Romero’s zombie quintet. Poorly released and mostly ignored at first, this has always been considered a letdown compared to the undisputed horror champs Night and Dawn (and by the time Land and Diary came along, Romero was automatically getting the love from critics and fanboys). But this is actually a really strong movie.

Before going underground for virtually the entire picture, we begin in a helicopter, as searchers land in a Florida city and look for survivors of some terrible cataclysm. No humans are present, but maybe it depends on how you define “survivors,” ‘cuz we got zombies all over. A newspaper, blown by the wind, has a headline declaring THE DEAD WALK. Back at the missile silo that is now home, a medical team fiddles with the revenants and tries to divine a solution, while a belligerent group of Army soldiers goes increasingly bonkers (cf. final act of 28 Days Later). The heroine (Lori Cardille) has only a couple of sane accomplices, the chopper pilot and a Scots radio man.

The doctor in charge, a loopy budding Frankenstein, is trying to find ways to re-train the zombies so they will do our bidding; he’s got one, Bub (named after his dominating father—this is weird), chained up and listening to the “Ode to Joy,” which actually brings a few moments of peace to the zombian brain. This is splendid. He rewards Bub with fresh entrails, which doesn’t sit too well with the other folk. (The movie is highly original in having its authority figure, the aged doctor—upon whom one would presume the future of civilization to depend–just as crazy as the bad guys.)

Like a demented rodeo—leave it to Romero to poke around at conventions of the Western as he pursues his horror ways–the crew wrangles zombies for the doctor’s experiments in a peculiar corral in a tunnel. The missile silo also houses financial records of great corporations, movie negatives, a repository of mankind’s now-pointless ambitions.

And here the true awesome design of the movie becomes clear: there is no hope for the future, no “solution” to be found nor even consoling human trappings (the silo has bare walls, except for the ersatz “backyard barbecue” trailer that the pilot and radio guy have set up). The only chance is to find an island and escape and start the hell over.

Each of Romero’s zombie pictures has been ingenious about responding to its moment, and there are a lot of ideas running loose in this movie—it puts the political simplicity of 28 Days Later to shame. Among other things, this movie is the antidote to Rambo, which was released the same year; the crowning moment for the chief military nutjob is a death scene where he shouts at Bub, “You pus fuck! You pus fuck!” over and over.

Tom Savini’s makeup effects are incredible—guts spilling from bellies, heads torn off in mid-shot, wild corpses with only brain stems left (but apparently still alive?), and a great coup with a decapitated head, upside down, its eyes moving from side to side.

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