Wednesday, June 4, 2008

George A. Romero Month, Film 2

When I said that the remake of Day of the Dead was basically a sillier retread of the remake of Dawn of the Dead, there was a precedent I should have mentioned. I'm guessing that part of the reason that the Day remake was like the Dawn remake may be because that the movie Day of the Dead is essentially a sillier, grimmer version of Dawn of the Dead. I vastly prefer Dawn in just about every way, but I still think Day has a lot to offer. I like to think of Day of the Dead as Dawn's Italian cousin (though both films were made in Americans).

Day of the Dead
by George A. Romero
The opening episode lets us know exactly where we stand as observers of the apocalypse. A woman in a helicopter awakes from a nightmare in which dozens of arms break through a wall to attack her to an even scarier reality. She and the three men she shares the cab with are scouring minor metropolitan areas for signs of life, which as we soon learn are hard to come by. As a newspaper headline tells us the dead have come back to life and if the town they've stopped in is any indication, the crew of the helicopter may be the last people left alive. After a parade of zombies greets them, they get back in their chopper and head back to base. Base, as it were, is an underground missile silo used as a home for a handful of soldiers and scientists. The woman with the dream, the only female among our heroes, Sarah is the most optimistic of the bunch, in that she sees the value in continuing to search for survivors. John the pilot and Mcdermott the radioman would much rather just pack up as much weed and food as can fit in the helicopter and find an empty island. The rest of the survivors are a little more divided in their opinions. There's the military men, all of whom but Captain Rhodes, and Privates Steel and Rickles are nameless stoners in green. The three whose names we learn are tyrannical dipshits for whom underground containment has eroded much of their kinder impulses. The scientists, whose camp Sarah sits in, are trying (with little success) to figure out what's causing the dead to rise. Dr. Fisher is sick of taking orders from the men in green, and Dr. Logan is a nutcase who spends all of his time operating on zombies. He clearly sees more life in his corpses than the men with guns who boss him around. His latest project, a docile corpse he's named Bub has been conditioned to remember things from his first life. He manages to pick up a telephone, shave, and most alarmingly use a gun.

Rhodes only recently assumed command after the death of his commanding officer and wishes to turn the silo into a military quarantine. This has everyone on edge as Rhodes feels entitled to a dictatorial reign, but as Fisher points out, his orders were to aid the research being done. Rhodes would rather pack up and leave, but where is there left to go. It's fairly clear from all the drugs and alcohol being consumed that everyone's had their fill of living underground (you will too before long). Sarah and private Salazar have been sleeping together, and because he's been unraveling mentally, she's beginning to feel unstable. Now of course we need some action to speed these conflicts to a head, don't we? Otherwise we're likely to spend 98 minutes watching people bicker at the top of their voice. The way that research is conducted is via the capture of zombies from a mine connected to the silo. This is an incredibly dangerous procedure and the first time it happens Rickles is nearly murdered because of Salazar's sleep-deprived incompetence. The second time, through a series of mistakes, two of the stoner soldiers are killed and Salazar is bitten on the arm. Sarah incapacitates him and cuts off the infected area, but Rhodes and his men aren't convinced. The final straw is when everyone figures out that Logan has been experimenting on the bodies of the dead soldiers. That's about when Rhodes snaps and demands that John fly him, Steel, Rickles and private Torrez away from the base. Then the following tangents collide: Sarah and Mcdermott are thrown into the mine to motivate John into compliance with Rhodes, Bub escapes from his chains and finds a gun, and Salazar lets about a hundred zombies into the base using the industrial elevator to the surface.
It isn't the best of the series, the most thoughtfully written, pleasantly composed, or realistic (HA!) but it is the goriest of George A. Romero's movies. It's also the one that fills me with the most existential dread. The film's color scheme is all dull greys and greens, and the movie is set entirely underground. I inherited claustrophobia something fierce from my dad and so the idea of being one of twelve people left on earth and having no more than a few hundred yards to share is quite terrifying to me. Worse still, Romero makes sure that the characters contribute greatly to that confinement. Sarah, Fisher, John, Salazar, and Mcdermott all feel like they're in a prison and Rhodes definitely wants it that way. Romero also uses this to justify the truly off-putting deaths Rhodes and his men meet. In fact he's all about extremes in this film; Rhodes and Steel are absolutely unbearable and frequently act like caricatures (I've read many comic books that have men just like these assholes). The extremes in characters results in much wooden acting from the principles (decent wooden acting, but the performances all suffer from the choice to work with unreasonable stereotypes). These things I could deal with as a child of 10, but after having seen many, many films of the kind I realize that Romero was smarter than the likes of Lamberto Bava and Lucio Fulci and should have resisted that urge. I bring up the Italians because the gross-out factor is the heaviest it ever got in a Romero film. There's only one real gut-munching scene (five people get it in all) but it's enough. The make-up in this film is really spectacularly disgusting, it may be the best in the genre, or it was at the time of it's release (it's just a shame Romero told all of his zombie actors to take their behavior way over the top). I do give Romero all the credit in the world for coming along and putting all the hacks in Europe to bed with this movie. They couldn't possibly top this film's gore effects and Italian zombie films were effectively pulled out of production. It's really the sweetest justice; who better to show just how lame the effects of Zombie Lake, Burial Grounds, and Zombi Holocaust were then the man who (through no real fault of his own) gave them their start. After all, Day had an impact on me, why not the film industry? Watching four men get pretty authentically torn limb from limb definitely had an impact on my young mind. That coupled with the closeness of everything and I had reason enough to be very afraid of this movie. It's also very difficult to make yourself sit down to watch a movie where everyone's going their own brand of insane. Add John Harrison's awful musical score and you've got nightmare fuel. The music for this movie is powerfully bad; worse even than the Mötley Crüe and Rick Springfield heavy soundtrack of Demons. I can't think of a more flagrantly 80s sound than the music in this film (it sounds remarkably like the kind of music used in a video-game called Castlevania my childhood best friend used to play but it isn't even as scary in Day of the Dead. In fact all in all the memroies I have of playing that game are scarier than this movie is, and it didn't have half the zombies).

Romero, ever the pundit, loves to put social commentary in his films (especially in his zombie films) and it's laid on pretty thick here. Through with complacent America he moves onto hardcore America, namely the military (he'd save conservative politics, the route of all evil, for last). It's no coincidence that the military men are either fascistic cretins or pot-smoking do-nothings. The stoners who get the short end of the stick are really just there cause they have to be. Torrez, Johnson, and Miller could care less about the mission and spend most of their time getting high or gardening their weed plants (they get killed when actually asked to do anything). Rickles, Steel, and Rhodes are crass, boyish, and rude (Logan and Fisher never swear, Mcdermott openly criticizes Steel for doing so) and wish to play soldier at all costs. There is so little to take charge of, yet they want total control of it, which means everyone unquestionably follows orders. Fisher's argument that their orders revolve around keeping the research afloat makes for a nice paradox, but Rhodes is too thick to think about it. In fact once the paradoxical limbo has been established, Romero moves away from it and focuses once again on psychological states and questions of ethics (i.e. John being OK with escaping and leaving everyone and everything behind). Personally I'm on his side because if they wait around much longer there won't even be the little humanity they know about left to enlighten with research. I, am also of course with Romero in taking a stand against the military, but did that really have to be said? His 'subtle' displays of anti-militarism feel put-upon (many of the soldiers cross themselves before succumbing to the undead or killing themselves) and could have been avoided. I could also have done without all that stuff with Bub. Not that America doesn't deserve it, but still.
The other consequence of having a movie about soldiers is the mandatory gunplay. When the soldiers are asked to use their guns against the zombies, they of course can't do it. But when the scientist, helicopter, and radio man have to do it, it's bullseyes all around. This feels more like an Italian film for this reason, as well. Between the gore, the music, the dialogue, character development, and maddest of mad science one could get the impression that America wasn't this film's country of origin. Which is funny because this only came after having worked really closely with Dario Argento on Dawn of the Dead. Which is perhaps why Day feels like a dumber version of Dawn (despite all the 'scientific exploration' in this one). The plot is right where Dawn left off, in fact Jon Polito essentially reprises his role from the earlier film. There's authroity that has to be dodged, although here it's inside with them. Stir-craziness is a big factor and the conclusion comes when the zombies get inside the safe haven the heroes have confined themselves in. In Day it's said that they've been put there to do research, so ostensibly the government is to blame for everything you see, but in a round-about sense. In Dawn the government's economic policy that lead to the creation of gigantic shopping malls is certainly meant to be given some blame, but it's never mentioned in such terms. In Day everyone is a skilled marksman, in Dawn they have to be taught to shoot by the two people with any skill. Survival skills are implied in Day because of the severity of the situation, but I think some degree of incompetence from the people who are supposed to exhibit it wouldn't have hurt. The big difference I guess is that the crazy Americans with guns and the smart Americans with guns are nominally on the same side in Day, which puts the intelligent people at even bigger risk because they share a house with both crazed gun nuts and flesh-eating zombies. One thing's for sure, playing fake steel drums over a beach scene that is so clearly in coastal Massachusetts doesn't mean we're in the carribean. This wasn't his best film; I'd rank it higher than Creepshow and Two Evil Eyes, but I wish to god Romero had someone else write this film for him. With Dawn he set his sights high, and with Day they were back down to naught. He'd have been better off back at that farmhouse in Evan's City.

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