The dead walk!
Unquestionably, the best apocalyptic horror ideal is the notion of the living dead. The images associated with it recall the most Freudian of nightmare fodder: the lone silhouette shuffling in the moonlight; the decaying arm rising from the graveyard earth; a slow rambling regiment of reanimated corpses, eyes dead but also alive with hunger; the tearing of flesh; the slopping sick sounds of feasting. The zombie is our most potent symbol of evil, since it's also the one most like us. We are seeking the blood of others. We are the rotted bags of meat moving to the next location hoping to find a source of instinctual nourishment. The constant drive, the seemingly relentless desire to feed and the destruction that comes with it makes these feral fiends equally dangerous and dispiriting. Yet when visualized, the motion pictures centered on these creatures, mostly fall into one of two categories. They are either thoughtless and crass (Zombie, Nightmare City) or resoundingly dumb (Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things, The Video Dead). There are the exceptions, though. Every once in a while, a filmmaker comes along who completely understands the genre he is embarking on and shows the rest of those trying to tell their tales exactly how it is done. In the case of George Romero, not only does he own the entire zombie array of moviemaking, but also he practically invented it. Like Bram Stoker with the vampire legend or William Friedkin and demonic possession, Romero's Dead films have set the standard and the procedural benchmarks for all flesh feasts to come before or since. They made the rules and defined the type.
After years of being available only as a substandard digital release, Anchor Bay releases the last Dead film Romero made, Day of the Dead, as a stunning, definitive DVD special edition. Like the man and the movie, this presentation is the benchmark by which all other zombie movies (and packages) are to be measured.
Facts of the Case
It has been several months since the zombie plaque started and the living dead have overrun the earth, rotting flesh controlling cities and circumstances. There are only small pockets of humanity left. As part of the plan to rid the world of these horrendous monsters, the government has set up scientific teams, each with a specific mission and a military support unit. In Florida, one such division lands to check a local town for survivors. When Sarah, a doctor with the team and Miguel, her military escort attempt to contact the living, they are greeted by a massive, slow, stumbling stampede of zombies.
Back at their underground barracks, situations have started to deteriorate. A new officer named Rhodes has taken over and he is power mad and unstable. He threatens the scientists, demanding answers and explanations. The chief research specialist, Dr. Logan, promises they will see results very soon. But this does not persuade the soldier. He and his men are sick and tired of rounding up undead specimens (which they have corralled in the cavernous tunnels of the shelter) for the medical team to experiment on. Tensions are high.
Back in the labs, Sarah is trying to find a way of reversing the reanimation process. Dr. Logan, on the other hand, is applying a strange form of behavioral psychology on the corpses. It's a weird reaction and reward system and one participant, nicknamed "Bub," seems to be responding incredibly well. Logan is so impressed that he shows his colleagues his progress. But when the angry army men stumble upon the Doc and his trained terror, they are not impressed.
Events soon spiral out of control. Miguel mishandles a zombie and it causes the death of more military men. He is bitten as well. Rhodes decides to shut down operations, take the team helicopter, and fly his remaining men out of the compound. He does not get much cooperation from the civilians, so he forces them to fend for themselves in the zombie-filled cavern. Just as he's about to get the upper hand, circumstances switch and soon everyone is fighting for survival against untold hordes of hungry, flesh eating corpses. Whoever gets to the chopper first may just have a chance of making it out of this hellish circumstance alive.
With the exception of Peter Jackson (and with some deference to recent efforts by Trainspotting's Danny Boyle), nobody does the living dead better than George Romero. Having honed his horror skills over the last four decades, it's clear that the master of the undead genre understands this material more clearly and cleverly than those newcomers (Resident Evil) and wannabes (Return of the Living Dead) to the title. The main difference between Romero and other pretenders to the throne is obvious. He makes movies about zombies, not just zombie movies. The distinction is subtle, but profound. Most crafters of flesh craving corpses think that gore and ghoulishness are all one needs to make a compelling monster movie. This is only partly true. Romero likes to couch his stories in the relevance of the era in which they were created. Night of the Living Dead is a direct reflection of the growing Cold War fear of foreign infiltration and the expanding social unrest of the civil rights movement. Dawn of the Dead attacked crass consumerism as the mindless (and potentially deadly) escape from reality it was, viewing materialism as the new drug of choice. Conceived and created at the start of Reagan's second term in office (with its untold build-up in military spending, jingoistic patriotism, and ever-mounting threat of nuclear war), this third and so far final member of the Dead family plays like a doomsday prediction of life in the near future. Indeed, Day of the Dead could easily be seen as a companion piece for something like The Day After or Testament, except with more gore and gruesome hopelessness.
As a result, Day of the Dead is a polarizing motion picture. It's either a fan favorite or a forlorn failed opportunity. Those who worship at the temple of Romero lament the proposed action filled horror anthem saga the auteur had planned to film as the finale to his fierce and frightening trilogy. Instead, they now look at this film as a connective experiment, meant to lead the converts from Dawn to a new "Twilight" or "Reckoning," whatever the name of the next chapter will be. For them, Day can never be the final word. Its hopeless and abandoned tone is just too bleak and depressing to indicate the ultimate fate of man, let alone end this cinematic entity. Still, there are those (this critic included) who praise Day for what it is: yet another brave twist on the entire zombie genre, one that is incredibly creepy, frightening as hell, and perhaps the nastiest splatter film ever made. Instead of making the intended living dead war film, where platoons of trained zombies are used to attack their fellow fiends and mankind feels a sense of hope for the future, Romero went insular and insane. He focused instead on showing the shattered remnants of humanity trying to deal with the overwhelming devastation and danger that existed just a few hundred feet above and around their heads. While Night was a film of physical survival and Dawn was a take on the crumbling social structure, Day is the closing descent into the last lonely place within a person: the soul. The zombie threat no longer challenges the authority of life. That item is long conquered. Day of the Dead argues that when the undead finally destroy the soul of humanity, that ethereal meat at the middle of mankind, they have finally won. And what better way show this than in a movie filled with isolation and individual betrayal.
Day of the Dead is an angry film. It's an oppressive experience. It's a movie where the notions of safety, escape, and oasis are completely removed. Death and its hideous aftermath can come at the hands and blackened teeth of reanimated corpses or the deranged, power hungry gun muzzle of a fellow survivor. In this toxic terrain, the total oblivion of the remaining live human population seems a mere stroke of luck from happening. It's an arena where Mengele style experiments can exist all in the name of endurance and optimism. It's a film where everyone's a victim and everyone's a villain. It's also a place where, for the first time, we start to sympathize with the plight and forlorn fatalism of the zombie. Treated like the vicious means to a mostly ineffective ends, the notions of torture and torment are explored by Romero as a way of showing that, even in the most dire of circumstances, man's authority mad inhumanity to man (or in this case, the corpse of man) will always rear its ugly head in a dire desire to maintain control. Dr. Logan, the Frankenstein of the fortress, doesn't want to eradicate the plague as much as domesticate a few of the fiends. He's all about righting internal, not external wrongs. He may have a valid scientific point, but he seems oblivious to the true dangers around him, lost in a world of misplaced self-esteem and sanctimony. If Logan, and Romero had their way, the world would be overrun and ruled by zombies, human race melting away between the jaws of pure eating machines whose final verdict on the species is simple. They are food; therefore, they are to be consumed. Romero clearly wants to take that old clichéd notion of a dog-eat-dog world and turn it into a more apropos person-consumes-self ideal.
But there are other motives in Day that aren't so clear-cut. Why a group of scientists, with the massive firepower of the military behind them, doesn't simply destroy the localized population of people eaters and find a way of surviving the disaster in the long term seems peculiar. They have seen the surface situation firsthand. They know there are no survivors. All this research and risk is obviously being forwarded for a mission that has long since lost its purpose. There is no contact with the outside world. The government has either collapsed or forgotten them, so why do they continue on? And both of these circumstances indicate that there is no chance that a cure or remedial course of action could ever be implemented on a scale wide enough to return things to some manner of normal. So the question again becomes: why not cooperate and get on with the process of existing? One answer could be that they don't know any better. Cut off from everything and without the direction so desired during a crisis, following the standard operating procedure seems to be the best bet within the conditions. It could also be a question of dominating that which you fear. After all, to cut and run means to simply find yet another place to hide, another realm to quarantine and patrol in hopes that the endlessly hungry don't show up at the gates to start the process all over again. There are matters of convenience (there is only one pilot for the freedom-providing helicopter) and issues of contempt and distrust, but overall, the reality is very understandable. Trapped in a world that is not readily explainable, they act exactly like human beings would: they're scared, skeptical, and ready to shoot first and look for answers later.
It's this truth that perhaps makes Day of the Dead such a hard row to hoe for the fright fan. It constantly asks you, as an audience member, to sympathize and understand the plight of these people. It makes you question what you would do under the same conditions. It asks you to evaluate decisions, locations, commitments, and camaraderie. Could you spend your days wrangling ravenous flesh eating creatures, risking death just to go through the process all over again? Could you eat, sleep, and work where, just a few feet away, rotting reanimated corpses are craving your flesh? And when you finally discover the overwhelming fruitlessness of your efforts, how you are putting your life on the line for an ever-diminishing possibility of success, could you survive? Would you want to? Would you be plagued by nightmares like Sarah or implode from stress like Miguel? These very uncomfortable thoughts and propositions are the overbearing aspects of life for the people encamped in Day's underground bunker and it's the equally painful position in which Romero places his audience. There is no comical relief (unless you consider the zombie pet Bub as a humorous diversion) and the elements of survival don't have the "battling together" bravado of Night of the Living Dead or decadent escape into greed of Dawn. Day is the first zombie film that requires a measure of personal bravery on the part of the audience, asking them to enter a realm of unrelenting horror and hardship and find something to help them hold onto hope.
And what about that character Bub? If Day of the Dead has an unlikely anti-actual-hero, it's the trained ape antics of the only three-dimensional zombie in the history of the genre. Bub is Dr. Logan's pride and joy, a Pavlov's corpse of controlled urges and delayed satisfactions. Bub is at times amusing and horrifying, reflecting back at us that which makes us human while stuffing his rotting maw with entrails. The misleading conceit that Dr. Logan functions under is that Bub is "learning," steps ahead in the reversed evolutionary process back to civilization. He no longer views the doctor as dinner. He listens to and even respects him. But what's also clear is that Bub is just biding his time. He just might represent the true final stage progression in the zombie hierarchy, to a place where the living dead can protect and even strategize their position in their battle against the human. While he may seem dumb and lovable in his grotesque goofball act, he's really the unknown quantity in this miserable mess. He may pose a possible solution (even though mass implementation seems impossible). He may also be the final act of the corpse domination of the planet. Bub's deadly dumb routine represents man's folly at its most ridiculous. Those who train ferocious wild animals make no mistake in believing that the killer instinct is completely eradicated from them. It lies dormant in a brain happy to have its immediate needs even more immediately met. When he has the chance, Bub shows that he too can be docile for the sake of dominion. Gun in hand, purpose clear, he becomes man's most feared enemy: a carnivorous killer who cannot be killed, since he is already dead. A more potent symbol of potential danger is hard to find in any film, horror or otherwise.
The thematic concepts of Day of the Dead tend to be buried beneath the standard stigmas of horror and zombie lore. What is painfully obvious, though, is that the movie represents make-up and special effects artist Tom Savini's occupational and artistic masterpiece. Long a champion of the animated autopsy style of cinematic effects, Savini lets his war scarred imagination (he was a field photographer in Vietnam) run amuck, and the result is some of the most disturbing, detailed gore scenes ever committed to film. Savini and his crew are detail freaks: if it doesn't look realistic, it is scrapped and reconceived. When seen for the first time, the blood and guts are overwhelming and upsetting, and not just because they look so real. Savini taps into a primal realm of human anatomy, of a place where the body seems its most visceral and fragile. Skin, long viewed as the precious armor that holds us together, is ripped jaggedly and easily from unsuspecting victims. Large gaping wounds pouring forth pints of grue are exposed and examined. The efficiency of the zombie machine, of its talon like hands and razor sharp incisors, is also highlighted. Their prey doesn't die as much as self-destruct, literally coming apart at the seams. Savini has always taken mischievous glee in the gunshot, and Day of the Dead is his epic statement to the power of the powder-propelled projectile. This isn't some CG con job. This is the real bullet time! This is the brain splatter back wall blood pattern goodness fans of the genre come to expect. Even though zombies are supposedly reanimated death, organs and pulmonary system long decayed, the minute a round finds its mark, fountains of fluid gush forward and incredibly nasty smears spread across the screen. There is no question that this is Savini's finest work. It is a showcase for what makes him one of the most revered and warped legends in the effects business.
But Day is also a strong platform for what makes Romero a long untapped cinematic genius. The opening sequence, where the researchers try to contact fellow survivors in a seemingly abandoned Florida town, is one of the greatest cinematic set pieces Romero has ever created and is one of the greatest introductions to a zombie picture ever (with Boyle's static 28 Days Later setup coming in a close second) As the silence is slowly broken by the plaintive, pained zombie wail and the streets begin to fill with rotting corpses, slowly stumbling toward the dangerously outnumbered humans, Romero add shots and props (a newspaper with a cryptic headline, a blowing bundle of cash), which accents the end of the world nature of the situation in small yet ambitious terminology. This is truly the look of "topside" as the dead walk the planet. His creative (and mostly desperate) decision to use an underground limestone mine storage facility as his primary set establishes the parameters (along with the opening) of the dilemma the characters face. Zombies surround them. They are forced to live with them nearby. There is no real comfort zone. And worse, the hungry corpses are also their modus operandi, their reason for existing. As a scientific expedition set up to determine how best to deal with the growing plague of the undead, even more members of the undead must be introduced into their closed society to be experimented upon and dissected. Unlike Night and Dawn where the force to be reckoned with is kept behind a barrier and struggled against, Romero introduces the idea of cohabitating with, even managing, the murderous monsters in a kind of unhappy truce between the living and the undead. Yet he constantly scuttles any optimism that the nightmare is possibly manageable. This is a direct comment on the possibility of an all out nuclear war being just around the corner (as it was in the early '80s), but it's also the genius of Romero's zombie films and his cinematic gift. He can couch his visions of hell is terms that find a concrete resonance within the real world and the real human beings in it.
If Day of the Dead is about anything, it's about humanity and what makes us human: the blood, the organs, the behaviors, and the cravings. It addresses the fundamental human desire to survive while it constantly strives to undermine that possibility. It's about the abuse of power and the implosion of authority in light of overwhelming disorder and chaos. It's about emotional and physical deconstruction. It's about hoping to control the instinctual with the logical. It's about the end of the world as we know it and having no one, nowhere feeling fine. But aside from telling us a great deal about who we are and what we are capable of, it's also a fascinating and ferociously frightening horror film whose atmosphere of dread and defeat will stay with you longer than a hopped up Hollywood blockbuster. Sure, there is lots of scenery chewing, over the top acting, and glorious human grandstanding. But in the final days of the living human race's place on the planet, such histrionics can be forgiven. Extreme circumstances do, after all, call for extreme responses. When all this started, it seemed like one long Night that resulted in a possibility of survival. As the Dawn approached, the inherent nature of man started to take over, and soon people were battling not only the beasts, but their fellow humans as well. And here, in the middle of the Day, as the dead overrun the planet and paint the cities with corpses and blood, humanity has gone subterranean, hoping to figure out their predicament before their situation turns critical. Problem is, they are so afraid of what surrounds them that they can't see that the only true, uncontrollable horror remains each other.
The original DVD release of this film, reviewed elsewhere on the site and still available from Anchor Bay, is rendered a complete travesty when compared to this new version. Not that it's unwatchable or edited all to heck and back. But once you've seen the new version of the film, you just can't accept any older version. The print has been completely restored, meticulously remastered and cleaned and it looks absolutely stunning. This is the best, most detailed, and dramatic Day of the Dead has ever looked, and that includes the rather low budget theatrical editions that played on a few selected screens around the country. You will literally view the movie anew with this digital presentation. The zombies look more real and gruesome. The sets become more foreboding and depressing. The blood is incredibly lifelike and the effects become a Technicolor course in meatball surgery. There are a couple of brief, almost insignificant moments of compression, but overall this is one impressive picture package.
Equally remarkable is the sonic scenarios created. Day has one of the best soundtracks ever to a Romero flick (John Harrison's lush, electronic score offers an ethereal presence of resolve over all the horrific proceedings) and the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround EX is a channel-challenging stunner. We get many atmospheric moments (especially in the creepy darkened cave chase sequence) and a clear front heavy dialogue presentation that allows for the actors' voices to be clearly understood. Several singular moments (far off zombie screams, the opening drone of the dead) are just spine tingling. Far superior to previous aural outings (and DTS was unavailable to this critic), the audio portion of Day of the Dead is as scary and startling as the film itself.
As for bonus content, Anchor Bay does indeed go gloriously overboard. Of primary interest to most aficionados of the genre and its creative minds will be a fantastic collective commentary track that features Romero, Savini, production designer Cletus Anderson, and female lead Lori Cardille. The track is mesmerizing and there is a real family feel to the proceedings. Everyone gets equal time and input, and you sense the fun they are having revisiting this title, their memories, and each other's presence. Romero hints at possible future zombie films. Savini is filled with cheerful anecdotes about killing people for a living, and Anderson discusses, in some detail, the trials and tribulations of working in a limestone mine for three months. Cardille comes across as a little star struck, as if she is just now realizing her place in genre history. Still, from hassles with the living dead (apparently, Florida zombies are inferior to Pittsburgh zombies) to plaintive reminiscences about low budget filmmaking, old school style, this is as close to a definitive commentary track as a Dead film has had. But then the people over at the Bay decide to push the envelope and try something completely novel.
Acknowledging the rabid fandom surrounding Romero and his movies, they give Roger Avery, known by many as the Oscar co-winner (with a certain Quentin Tarantino) for the Pulp Fiction screenplay, in his capacity as a lover of the Dead films, a chance to offer his own insights and admiration of the movie. Unlike Roger Ebert's Citizen Kane track, which is meant as a scholarly dissertation on the meaning of the movie, this is a pure glowing lovefest, a true film worshipper's fawning admiration of the object of his affection. While this may sound silly, it's actually wonderful, like watching the film with your best friend. He definitely comes across as someone who appreciates the movie and its maker. Avery does do a little cinematic name checking ("This scene is very Kubrickian") and explains a dream he had about a missing scene he is sure must exist in the film (it involves the fate of Logan and Bub), but mostly this is a fawning, fun feature of a fanatic and a film he adores. As expert as the cast and crew commentary is, Avery's narrative adds that extra "tweak of geek" that movies like the Dead trilogy demand.
The second disc filled with extras is also extraordinary. The new 39-minute interview documentary entitled "The Many Days of Day of the Dead" gives a real feeling of what it took to make this film. Offering both cast and crew insights, we learn more details about the location, the rather radical desire on the part of extras to be zombies, and how the movie has continued to resonate with the actors, both as individuals and in their fan base (actor Joe "Rhodes" Pilato's story about meeting an impressed "dude" in a Seven-11 is priceless). While it would have been nice to hear from other members of the cast (where's Gary Howard Klar/Steele or Anthony Dileo/Miguel?) or even fans/scholars, this is still a well-done and impressive bit of behind the scenes work. Just as wonderful are the Tom Savini home movies of the makeup and effects production on the film, packaged and renamed "Day of the Dead: Behind the Scenes." Some of this material was seen back on Elite's laserdisc version of the film and offered as a bonus on the first Anchor Bay DVD incarnation. Here, it seems polished and presented with more depth, showing before and after makeup tests, squib and prosthetic experiments, and the overall good time everyone had in making the movie (except for the infamous rotting intestines sequence. No one looks happy in this foul footage). Combine this with trailers, TV spots, an audio interview with "Dr. Frankenstein/Logan" (Richard Liberty), biographies, scene stills, makeup galleries, poster art, an insert essay/trivia pamphlet fashioned after one of Dr. Logan's "notebooks," and a funky little industrial ad for the underground storage facility, and you've got a treasure of welcomed additional information. You can ever peruse the original screenplay (with all its ambitions) and production memos via your DVD-ROM drive. Overall, this is a fantastic package for a great movie.
The career arc of George Romero has, sadly, been pretty hit or miss. For every exercise in successful horror (the Dead films, The Dark Half, Martin), there have been weird detours (Knightriders, Monkeyshines) and all out disasters (Bruiser). And the anticipated projects that fell threw in various stages of pre-production can make a fright film fan's heart weep with sorrow (Romero has been, at one time or another, attached to direct versions of The Stand, Pet Sematary, The Mummy, and the most recent zombie-athon, Resident Evil). Yet he is also one of the few directors that genre lovers never give up on. Wes Craven can be called a "sell-out" or John Carpenter labeled "fallen," but there is always this hope, this commitment and support for George. But it's not always without criticism. He may have created a defining genre of horror with his living dead films, but he has also alienated some fans that want certain things from his zombie movies each time out. Day of the Dead just won't play by those rules of peer popularity. It takes its insular tale of mental fatigue and physical fear and jacks up the subjugation to create a movie stuffed full of potential, poisoned energy. The disgust and dissatisfaction he feels toward the way he is treated in the film business is evident in every frame of the movie, from the mindless leaders barking their ridiculous orders to the mad scientists/scenarists who'd like to "doctor" his vision to have it fit into a more palatable platform for the viewing public. And still, the fans want more, which begs the question: where does he go next? Does he cave in and pander or continue to experiment? After the docudrama reality of Night, the gross out social comedy of Dawn, this final (?) installment feels like the death knell, the ultimate kiss-off for the nastiness he helped create and nurture. If he indeed feels the need to have hell overflow once again, Day of the Dead will stand as a stunning, masterful reminder that, when all hope is lost, it's a real bitch to locate again. And what's the next episode in that history?
Not guilty! Not guilty! Not guilty! Day of the Dead is free to go and live on as one of the classics in the zombie horror genre. Romero is also found innocent and remanded to the care of producers and financers who will let him make the movies he wants without commercial or demographic considerations. Court adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Commentary by Director George A. Romero, Special Make-Up Effects Artist Tom Savini, Production Designer Cletus Anderson, and Actress Lori Cardille
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