DAY OF THE DEAD
What better way to end John Amplas Week, than with a look at the end of the world itself? What better cap to place on things, than a review of George Romero’s cap on his original Dead trilogy? What more fitting review to write today, than DAY OF THE DEAD? None, I say. This week I’ve given the critical eye to the Romero-Amplas pairings MARTIN, CREEPSHOW and KNIGHTRIDERS, as well as the John Russo disaster-opus MIDNIGHT. Now it’s time to hone in on Amplas’ last onscreen appearance in service of Romero’s camera, the last in line of his Dead saga for 20 years. A quarter century out, DAY OF THE DEAD divides Romero’s fans; while many hold that it’s the least of the original trilogy, over the years it’s developed a base that touts it’s actually their favorite. As for me, for a long time I found it a boring excuse of a film that sat far below NIGHT and DAWN. It still holds its place as my solid # 3, but I’ve come to love it for all the wrong reasons. Read on.
From its opening shot, DAY OF THE DEAD is the bleakest of the Dead trilogy. Lori Cardille’s character Sarah is slumped down against a bleached white wall, head facing the floor. As she stands and approaches the far wall, the calendar indicates it’s Halloween. A jarring action then rouses her, and it’s apparent she’s fallen to exhaustion. She wakes up to find herself in a helicopter, on a recon mission in search of any living. As she and soldier Miguel cry out in the streets, the only reply they get is the guttural bellows of the undead. As the living dead pour out into the Floridian streets, this much is clear: there are a lot more living dead left in the world than living. As chopper pilot John succinctly posits to communications expert McDermott, “It’s a dead place.”
He’s dead on. As the film’s tagline says, this is “The darkest day of horror the world has ever known,” straight out from the start. Tonally, this is much grimmer than NIGHT, where mankind had at least a fighting chance of escaping that farmhouse; nor does it sport the cheery, comic book action of its direct predecessor, DAWN. There’s little hope of anything but a society spinning out of control, and the only cheer is in the insane glee of a mad scientist and the sadistic machismo of an army captain. The film lets its audience know early on that things have fallen apart to the point of no repair. This is the end.
It’s also visually the darkest of the three. Most of it takes place in an abandoned mine, a cavernous, subterranean complex filled from corner to corner with gloom. Here three factions have set up operations: there are the scientists, composed of Sarah, Ted Fisher and the obviously insane Dr. Logan; the military, a bunch of macho pricks whose leader, Capt. Rhodes, is in way over his head following the death of superior, Major Cooper; and off to the side, John and McDermott, wisely minding their own business. Herein lies the crux of the conflict, as the scientists want more time to use their hopelessly inadequate equipment and find a cure for the zombie plague; while the military simpletons just want to “blow the piss out of them.” This leads to bickering, shouting and screaming, followed by more bickering, shouting and screaming, which proceeds toward more bickering, shouting and screaming.
This is what makes the film such a bore, as it’s the title really should have been DAY OF PEOPLE BICKERING ABOUT THE DEAD. Elongated conversations dominate the film, with both the army and the scientists playing a game of who’s got the bigger dick. With so much talk, there’s very little in the way of zombies, and much of that includes the living dead either strapped to a gurney or chained to a wall. Romero’s script is so obsessed with misguided testosterone instead of walking corpses, that it’s easy to forget there are thousands of zombies outside the gates, waiting to get in and feast. There’s no narrative drive, and it doesn’t help that we’re supposed to sympathize with Sarah. Much of her thought process is misguided, and instead of playing it cool with Rhodes, she engages him to the point where he orders a soldier to shoot her. She’s just as abrasive as he is, even when dealing with Logan, who knows just how to play Rhodes and leave him bewildered. As the central protagonist, she’s too combative for my tastes, and not nearly as flashy as Rhodes or Logan. But she’s more than happy to take part in the bitchfest alongside the rest. This is why for years I couldn’t be a fan of DAY. When matched up against the previous two films, it falls short to the claustrophobic tension of NIGHT and the more action-oriented DAWN.
And then I watched DAY OF THE DEAD again a few years ago, after I met Joe Pilato at the Texas Frightmare Weekend. And I fell in love with those scenes. Captain Rhodes is one of the biggest cartoon pricks in the history of film; every word out of his mouth, from his “monkey farm” line to his “Greek salad” to his exclamation of, “THEY’RE DEAD! THEY’RE… FUCKING DEAD!” is the stuff of delirious brilliance. His underling Pvt. Steel, played by beefy Gary Klar, is a gorgeous example of a modern day caveman, driven by base racism and hatred. As played by Richard Liberty, Dr. Logan, sarcastically referred to as “Dr. Frankenstein,” is totally batty, delivering nutty stories about Aunt Alicia, and how his dad’s buddies at the country club called him “Bub.” Once I started to look at DAY as a send-up and take it much less seriously (much less than Romero probably wanted), then it became a joy.
Not that there isn’t some serious material here. As Logan tells us, zombies outnumber the living by roughly 400,000 to 1, which means there are roughly 600 breathing humans left in the United States. Logan’s gone all out to prove that he can domesticate them, teach them not to eat flesh, as long as he rewards them. This is a Romero film, so there’s commentary about how we’ve all been promised some great rewards for being “good little boys and girls,” but those promises went unfulfilled. If Logan suggests we can make house pets out of the zombies, then the message is that our higher ups in government have made docile house pets out of us.
Then there’s John’s speech, the lynchpin for the entire film, and perhaps the trilogy. Neither as emotional as Ben’s speech about the gas station, nor as flashy as Peter’s “no more room in Hell,” John’s discourse is nonetheless compelling. His suggestion that everybody stop trying to figure out why this is happening, and focus on starting fresh sounds alien to Sarah, who can’t let go of the old society. He posits that God has shunned us for thinking too much of ourselves, and now “We’ve been punished by the Creator.” The mine has become a “fourteen mile tombstone,” not only to those within it, but as a marker for the old society as a whole. His words reflect on the darkness, and provide one alternate way out of it, if only the rest of them will listen.
The film’s only other glimpse of light is the character of Bub, Logan’s prize student zombie. Reviewing a 26-year old horror flick that’s garnered much criticism, it’s impossible not to retread on what others have said, and so I’ll just echo them: Howard Sherman’s performance is nothing short of brilliant. His sensitive, childlike portrayal creates several levels that most of the one-note humans lack. Bub’s wide-eyed moments of wonder and discovery are revelatory, and the suggestion that he may have some memories of his life make the zombies much more sympathetic figures… if you can put aside the fact they want to dine on you. But even on that note, Bub doesn’t try to eat Logan, his mentor, and the relationship between the two is touching. Sherman’s portrayal is one of two aspects of DAY that make it worth watching.
The other is the special makeup effects work of Tom Savini. Given a larger number of assistants (among them effects genius and DAY star Greg Nicotero), and the technical prowess to do more than just paint a bunch of people blue, Savini does stellar work. It’s his greatest job as an effects artist, the culmination of his career. It’s also so realistic that it still turns my stomach, even having seen the movie so many times. Savini often talks about effects as misdirection, and he fools the eye as only a master could in DAY. Torn throats, severed fingers, a body torn in half at the waist, and astoundingly, a body whose head has been removed but for the brain are all among the visual wizardry going on here. Even those who trash the film for being a turgid exercise that’s overly talky praise his genius on display.
One thing not so mentioned in 26 years of critique is John Amplas’ performance as Dr. Ted Fisher. Having played a conflicted vampire, a Hispanic gang leader, a mime and a talking zombie hungering for dessert, he caps off his collaboration with Romero with his performance in DAY. The joy in comparing these roles is each is distinct from the others. Here, Amplas gives a solid performance of a character who is more level headed than Logan and less confrontational than Sarah. Fisher’s also got a sarcastic sense of humor, and Amplas delivers these gems as a pro. Having started as the central piece of MARTIN, he goes out with a respectable performance in this ensemble piece.
Anchor Bay put together a nice DVD package, for a film that was only a marginal success. The first feature is the box itself for the 2-disc set . A cut-out Bub holds things together with some Velcro; open it and Logan greets you with a lunatic’s smile. There’s also a multi-page essay from Michael Felsher, who defends the film and explains why he thinks so many fans have warmed up to it over the years (though not because they now view it farcically, as I do); the booklet purports to be the blood-splattered notes of Dr. Logan himself, a nice touch.
Though not as extensive as the package that Anchor Bay provided for DAWN, there’s a decent amount of content here. The first piece is “The Many Days of DAY OF THE DEAD,” a fairly comprehensive, 39-minute documentary with reflections from Romero, Savini, stars Sherman, Pilato and Lori Cardille, and others. Romero starts the proceedings off by explaining how stark a division there is among the fans of the Dead trilogy. Those whose favorite is DAY, he refers to as “trolls.” He then discusses what is one of the most famous truths behind the film. His original vision for the film was much more elaborate, with redshirt zombie soldiers, an above-ground encampment and warring factions. This would have cost roughly $7 million, but it would come at a cost: producer Salah Hassanein would put up the money, but only if Romero would guarantee an R rating, the effects of which would have been obvious. Romero refused, compressing his script into the angrier version that became the film. Everyone involved seems to think the original script would have made for a much better film, but I’ve read it, and I just can’t see it. It’s a much more complex piece, and even offers an a potential cure for the plague. But it’s still talky, and not nearly as fun. The rest of the doc offers all sorts of interesting back stories, and everyone involved is clearly proud of the work they did.
There’s also an audio commentary, with Romero, Savini, Cardille and production designer Cletus Anderson. As often happens, it fleshes out many of the stories from the documentary. Romero is enjoying himself during the chat, and that makes it a joy to listen to. He also discusses why this is his favorite of all his Dead films, mainly because of his memories from the set and the camaraderie. Diehard trolls will eat up this commentary.
And then there’s Roger Avary’s bizarre commentary. Why I should be listening to the writer of RULES OF ATTRACTION and Tarantino’s co-writer ponder on DAY OF THE… well, I shouldn’t. He’s nice enough to start off his discussion with, “I’m a fan.” Hey Roger, I’m a fan too, and I didn’t deserve to do a commentary for this film either.
There’s a slew of minor features, the most interesting of which is a promotional video for the Wampum Mines outside of Monroeville, where DAY was filmed. If you’re interested in reading Romero’s original script, a DVD-ROM provides it.
And for those of you who have upgraded to Blu-Ray, British company Arrow Video offers you the exclusive “Joe of the Dead,” an exposé on Joe Pilato. I’m sure it’s precious.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD will always be my favorite Romero film, and more fans praise DAWN than any other. Though DAY has never been the runaway winner of the three, it’s worth seeing for Bub and Savini’s effects alone. And if you’re like me, for a lot of wrong reasons that make it oh-so-right.