Synopsis (=SPOILER. Try to keep up…)
Four people in a chopper (severe-looking lady, beardy, whiny soldier, cool black guy pilot [John], and Irish radio guy [McDermott]) land (against the wishes of the pilot) in the middle of a deserted street somewhere that looks like Florida. Two of the passengers (severe lady and disheveled soldier), walk into the street and the soldier starts bellowing, through a bullhorn, “Hello! Is anybody there?!” Somebody’s there. Hundreds and thousands of someones. As the soldier bolts back to the chopper and the woman reluctantly follows, we see that the entire city is overrun with zombies. It is, as the pilot says, “a dead place.”
Yup, the zombies have won.
The chopper lands at a fenced-in airfield where some equally-disheveled soldiers tend their pot plants before everyone descends in a platform elevator to an underground bunker. There, the situation is explained and the players are revealed. They’re all part of a hastily assembled research team sequestered in an abandoned salt mine, with the soldiers tasked with protecting the scientists, who are tasked with, well, trying to save the world, I guess. With outdated and inadequate equipment and little idea of how to do so. As the woman (Sarah) explains, their outpost was put together in desperation, in a matter of days, and they haven’t had contact with Washington, or anyone, in a long time. One stoned soldier speculates that they might be the last people on earth, and no one dismisses the idea.
Meanwhile, the “last people on earth” are anything but harmonious. The soldiers are frayed, stoned, drunk, and more than a little surly. Plus, they’re led (upon the recent death of the previous commanding officer) by a Captain Rhodes, a petty tyrant, bully, and all-around
a-hole. Seriously, he is very yelly. As the briefing descends into much yelling and even threats of shootings from Rhodes, we me the final player, Dr. Logan, the resident surgeon, nicknamed “Dr. Frankenstein” for his propensity to slice up zombie specimens and his disinterest in changing out of his gore-stained smock.
Logan explains that the time, as Rhodes proposes (yellingly) to “blow the piss out of” all the zombies is long past, and that, since he estimates they outnumber humans some 400,000 to one, the soldiers’ only choice is to continue to aid them in their research. Rhodes issues (yells) an ultimatum, but allows the meeting to adjourn.
Meanwhile Sarah and whiny soldier (Miguel) are lovers, but, since he’s so whiny and clearly collapsing from stress and whininess, they’re on the outs. Miguel whines because Sarah’s being so strong and capable, slaps her, hugs her, and then gets tranquilized for his trouble. Sarah, upset but no doubt secretly grateful for a whine-free hour, pays a visit to Logan’s entirely gross, cavernous lab, where he explains his bloody research involving zombie brain dissection and power-screwdrivers a surly specimen to double-death. Sarah heads back to her test tubes and chats with her nerdy lab partner Ted (played my Martin‘s John Amplas) about what different brands of psychos Logan and Rhodes are. The Logan part of that argument is proven further when Logan unveils what he considers his greatest achievement: a zombie (which he calls Bub) who he seems to have at least partly domesticated. Yeah, domesticated. Bub’s able to recognize (and yet seemingly not want to eat) Logan, and operate, albeit on a rudimentary level, a book, phone, and razor. He even croaks out a few repeated words. Rhodes, looking on, is appalled and (shocker) yelly, and Sarah complains that Logan’s breakthrough seems to have little practical value to their dire situation.
After waking up, Miguel is corralled into helping round up more captive zombies from the holding area in the underground tunnels by the two shrillest (non-Rhodes) soldiers, the apocalyptically broad Steele and Rickles. Miguel, as he had earlier, totally mucks up his seemingly simple part of the gig (technically, it was equipment failure, but the dude was an accident waiting to happen), killing one random soldier and getting himself bit on the arm in the bargain.
Meanwhile, Sarah’s been getting drunk in the underground trailer bachelor pad of sexy John
and boozy McDermott, with John sexily opining on the unknowablity of the zombie apocalypse and his idea that they should take the chopper, abandon the psychos, find a beach and make some babies. It sounds pretty reasonable, actually. Then Miguel runs screaming into the cavern.
Sarah, acting quickly, knocks Miguel out, grabs John’s machete, chops off Miguel’s bitten arm, and cauterizes the wound. Man. Then Rhodes and the boys show up, demanding to put Miguel down before he turns, but Sarah, with John and McDermott providing armed backup, drive them off, with Rhodes yelling threats, of course. Sarah finally breaks down in tears, and John consoles her.
With the two good guys babysitting the feverish Miguel, Sarah heads up to the complex for supplies and she and Ted accidentally see how Logan’s been training Bub- with dead soldier meat. They’re freaked, but Rhodes, who spies this as well, is, perhaps understandably, pissed and (you guessed it) yelly, and he and his lackeys shoot Logan and take Sarah and Ted back downstairs, where they try to force John to fly them out by shooting Ted and threatening Sarah. After knocking the reluctant John out, they throw Sarah and McDermott into the zombie pen where they, unarmed, try to make their way through the zombie-infested tunnels to the silo at the end and the ladder to the surface. John wakes up, turns the tables, and, deciding not to execute Rhodes, heads after them to provide cool-guy backup.
Soldiers heading for the chopper find that a feverish Miguel has sabotaged the elevator and allowed a huge platform elevator-load o’ zombies to descend into the complex. They’re all dispatched in super-Savini fashion, with Rhodes death being particularly memorable (first shot by the grieving Bub, and then torn apart, intestine-style by a horde, whilst yelling (effectively, for once) “Choke on ’em!)
Sarah, McDermott, and John fight their way through, get to the chopper, JUMP SCARE! And then we see the three of them on a beach, fishing and seemingly safe. Sarah marks a calendar.
Man, is this gonna be a tough one.
On the one hand, Day of the Dead contains some of the most potent dramatic moments in the entire original Romero zombie trilogy, and follows the logical, terrifying progression of the zombie phenomenon to a satisfying, logical seeming conclusion.
Allow me to explain…
To the good:
-I love the score of Day of the Dead. It gets credited to the ubiquitous Goblin a lot, but was actually the work of Pittsburgh-based band Modern Man. And I genuinely love it. Evocative and used to great effect, the score really adds to the film’s atmosphere, especially in the more melancholic moments. (By the way, the soundtrack has never been on CD, and is completely out of print. If you own an illegal copy and have enjoyed this review, well…)
-Romero’s instinct to follow the logical thread of the first two films to the isolated, depopulated claustrophobia of this one is exactly what the Zombie Rules dictate. The progression of the zombie apocalypse necessarily means the survivors end up trapped, cowering behind barbed wire, crouching desperately in an abandoned mine. The end of all communication with the outside world. The increasing desperation of those left behind. The breakdown of all social order. It’s lonely, and chilling, and, even with all the histrionics and gore, very, very sad.
-Rhodes’ death scene. I mean, if you’re paid homage to by Shaun of the Dead, you’re doing something right. The most epic zombie death of all time.
-We’ll get to the badness later, but some of the performances in Day of the Dead are the best of the series. Let’s go to the tape:
1. Lori Cardille as Sarah. Despite the Florida locations (for the most part), Uncle George stayed true to his Pittsburgh roots by casting Cardille (daughter of Pittsburgh TV personality “Chilly Billy” Cardille, who appeared briefly in Night of the Living Dead) as his lead. And she’s not a great actress. A little stilted in parts, and nobody’s beauty (sorry, but she’s sort of toothy and gangly), but in a couple of scenes especially, Cardille genuinely provides some of the most affecting moments in the entire (original) trilogy. First, in the drunken rap session with John, when Sarah first lets down her guard and blearily connects with the man she always misunderstood (but is clearly a better match than the whimpery Miguel) she reveals a softness and a humanity that is really endearing. And, in the best scene in the film (or perhaps any of the three), when Sarah takes decisive, unthinkable action on her former lover, holding it together until crisis has passed before standing, shaking, and, when John takes the torch from her hand, saying an oblivious ‘thank you’ before dissolving, for the first time, into uncontrollable sobs- well, that’s just great acting. And, alongside Fran in Dawn, lets hear it for a strong female lead in a horror movie.
2. Terry Alexander as John. Handsome, capable, charismatic (in this case second) lead, Alexander continues the, clearly intentional by this point, Romero trend of casting a rare black horror lead. Alexander’s really good in Day, lending a welcome note of calm sanity in the midst of all the histrionics. I especially like his authority in the two, count ’em two, Mexican standoffs, and the utterly reasonable and charming (and sexy) appeal to Sarah during the very winning drunk scene. My only complaint is the Jamaican accent. It’s distracting. He struggles manfully, but, yeah…not good.
3. Richard Liberty as Dr. Logan/Frankenstein. Sure, he’s hammy, but he also has an integrity in his hamminess. You really believe, and feel for, the clearly-driven-mad Logan, obviously a formerly well-heeled chief of surgery whose tenure as the apocalypse’s resident mad scientist has turned him hinge-lesss. His eccentric ability to stand up to Rhodes in his first appearance, and his blinkered and maniacal rantings about his theories are funny and compelling. Plus, his work with Bub (and believe me, this issue will be covered later) is actually sort of moving.
4. Jarlath Conroy as McDermott. Yeah, he’s ill-served by Romero’s writing- as an “Irish character”, he’s required to take nips from his flask at every opportunity and say “Jaysus, Mary and Joseph” at every other, but he’s got a few good moments. I especially like his reading of “So we are heroes after all…what a relief.” And, even though he’s actually Irish, I swear to god, his accent slips as much as Terry Alexander’s.
Aaannd, that’s it. See ‘The Bad’ for the rest. Seriously.
Sure, I praised the way Day of the Dead logically followed the necessary progression of the zombie phenomenon, and I meant it. But Romero’s script, especially with regards to character development and interaction, undermines its effectiveness. In the sense of everyone immediately screaming at each other and being cartoonishly broad and silly. Yeah, society’s disintegration, stress, and the yawning specter of human extinction and becoming zombie chow are going to cause some people to act like a-holes and bring about the degeneration of order and discipline, but, right from the get-go, almost everyone in Day is a bellowing, snarling, guffawing, whining, speechifying, bullying, inadequately-accented caricature. And it doesn’t seem like all of this angst is the result of that logical societal decay I was talking about; it just seems like Uncle George isn’t very good at writing believable characters. The characters in Day give no sense of ever being anything but the cliched, strapped-to-the-rails good or evil caricatures they are at the start. Honestly, this set-up is a perfect opportunity to take the zombie phenomenon to a logical, dramatically-resonant conclusion. But the movie botches the execution almost immediately. Bummer.
–Captain Rhodes. Oh, sweet fancy Moses. The actor’s name is Joseph Pilato, and here are some fun facts:
1. Quentin Tarantino cast him as Dean Martin in the Jackrabbit Slims restaurant sequence in Pulp Fiction. He’s just there in the background, but still.
2. I’ve taken it upon myself to seek out any performance of Mr. Pilato’s that I can find. In the long out-of-print indie Married People, Single Sex, he was actually understated and sort of appealing.
3. He did voices for ‘Digimon.’
4. He had a tiny, nonspeaking role in Dawn of the Dead (as a cop on the docks), but not as the same character.
5. He may have been a camera stand-in for Robert DeNiro in The Deer Hunter.
and 6. His performance in Day of the Dead is the single worst acting job I’ve ever seen in my entire life.
Yeah, let that sink in for a minute.
I’ve watched more than a dozen Keanu Reeves movies. I’ve seen every episode of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” I even sat through two Halle Berry performances in the X-Men movies.
But Pilato’s Rhodes is the single most over-the-top, offputting thing in any movie ever made. Just watch him stroking his chin and leering at Sarah saying, “Yeah, give the rest of us a chance at some lovin,” or him bellowing “I’m running this monkey farm now Frankenstein and I wanna know… what the fuck you’re doing with my time?,” or him bellowing, well, all the rest of his lines. Yikes. Sure, I suppose the film needed an antagonist of some sort, but, hey, here’s an idea- how about someone whose villainous acts stem from some sort of believable stress or motivation? Just an idea. Classic death scene though.
#3. Zombies do not feel fear (even of fire).
#4. Zombies do not feel anger. A combo platter here, if a relatively minor one. Generally, the zombies in Day of the Dead behave themselves admirably. I toss a flag only on the scene where two of Dr. Logan’s chained up subjects act sorta mad at Ted in the lab, and then react first abashed and then nervous when Logan first berates them and then turns off the lights. I mean, it’s so minor, I wonder why I even bring it up . I mean, Romero clearly has his beardy head on straight with regards to the zombie rules I made up forty years after his first zombie movie, right?..
#5. Zombies do not (and here I’m gonna piss of the Romero faithful) remember anything about their previous lives.
#6. Zombies do not learn. Not to use tools, not to fear weapons, or humans with weapons. Zombies are. They are reanimated corpses with only one, singleminded goal. That is what’s scary.
Let’s just title this entry “The Bub,” shall we?
On the one hand, Howard Sherman‘s performance as Bub, Dr. Logan’s pet zombie subject, is,
by miles, the best in Day of the Dead. His mimetic skills in conveying the nascent consciousness of the lapdoggy Bub are genuinely affecting. Look at the scene where he makes a lunge at Logan’s (typically-blood-covered) hand only to collapse in abject remorse when he sees the reprimand in Logan’s eyes. Or his extended scene where he tries to master various formerly-mundane article (a phone, a razor, a book), culminating in him reacting to an old photograph (and, regrettably, remembering how to speak.) Or the moment where he discovers Logan’s dead body. This is all great acting; subtle, physically-precise, and very, very moving.
And it’s a goddamned disaster.
I love George Romero. His zombie apocalypse idea tapped into something so compellingly, primordially-terrifying that there are a dozen Romero-influenced zombie films being made every year and filmgeek bloggers are writing absurdly in-depth analyses of his work nearly a half-century later. But, as with another of my beloved horror director icons (John Carpenter), I spend most of my time playing apologist. For every nightmare-inducing, hauled-up-from-the-darkest-subconsciousness concept, I find myself defending substandard writing and some truly crappy ideas.
Which brings me to Bub.
For all Sherman’s brilliance in the role, Uncle George’s judgement that, at the last extremity of the zombie apocalypse, it was dramatically-essential to humanize the undead is, well… a goddamned disaster. With humanity faced with complete extinction, and a claustrophobic setting full of possibly the last humans on Earth having to cope with that fact, with the unfathomable responsibilities of either solving the crisis or coping with that extinction in all the myriad possible ways, Romero thought that the most fruitful dramatic choice was to turn the zombies into sympathetic tragic heroes. It’s a colossally-dumb decision, it violates everything that makes the zombie apocalypse so terrifying and interesting in the first place and, of course…
it’s a zombie crime.
(Plus…zombie with a gun? Not cool, George.)
Uncle George took a long break from the zombie genre after this one, so I will too. Look for a review of the unofficial (and highly-suspect) Romero spiritual sequel Return of the Living Dead!!!