Day of the Dead (1985)

Note: My fall break from blogging is over, and with Season 2 of The Walking Dead upon us soon, I'll wrap up the run of movie reviews this time around with today's piece on Day of the Dead and tomorrow's on Return of the Living Dead, two very different films from 1985 that descended from the original Night of the Living Dead. That done, we'll have a succession of reviews of each of the episodes of Season One of The Walking Dead, leading up to the Season Two premiere on October 16.  Thanks for reading, register for the Twitter feed or subscribe via the reader of reader of your choice, and always remember the double-tap!

The third film in George Romero's Dead series is a subdued affair, but nonetheless effective in its examination of how a small band of survivors with some resources and a clear mission still can't keep it together in the wake of the end of the civilized world.  The narrative centers on a group of civilians, scientists, and military personnel who are holed up in an underground complex as a research team struggles to find a way to prevent or cure or manage the zombies that have overrun the world.  Aside from a few exterior scenes shot in Florida, most of the film takes place deep underground, the contrast between the tropical sunshine and the enclosed spaces of the facility contributing greatly to the claustrophobic feel of the movie.

Lori Cardinelle plays Dr. Sarah Bowman, a cool-headed member of the science team and, for most of the film, its focal point.  The primary antagonist is the profane, perpetually pissed Captain Rhodes (Joseph Pilato), an instantly unlikable character who leads a dwindling corps of soldiers, most of whom are unmitigated idiots or psychos, not the least of which is the brawny, bigoted Private Steel (Gary Howard Klar).  Cardinelle does her best to work with Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty), whose penchant for cutting up zombies to see how they work has earned him the nickname "Frankenstein."  Dr. Bowman's most trusted colleagues are the civilians -- helicopter pilot Bill McDermott and the communications technician known only as John (Terry Alexander).

Down in the underground complex, the military is ostensibly working for the science team.  Periodically, zombies must be trapped and delivered to Dr. Logan, who spends most of his time locked in his lab amid the scalpels and bone saws, with scarcely time enough to wash the putrid blood from his lab coat.  In fact, he doesn't bother any more.  Nice duds, Doc.  Zombie-wrangling is dangerous -- even deadly work -- and the soldiers are dwindling in number with little progress being shown from the science team.

Bub makes a call -- but to whom?
Now, Dr. Logan has figured out --more or less -- how zombies work.  Their brains are burned out save for their most basic central nervous systems, and the little movement they manage is very painful.  They move and eat mostly out of habit -- they can't digest the flesh they consume -- and whatever is making them zombies also slows the rate of decomposition.  Logan has given up on trying to reverse or prevent zombification, but he is working on trying to train them.  In fact, Logan has a particularly promising zombie subject, whom he's named Bub.  Bub is not as threatening as the other undead, and appears to recall -- if only in grunting pantomime -- some things from his former life: cassette recorders, books, phones, and (!) shaving equipment.  But in order to keep Bub docile and quasi-friendly, this zombie-pet requires regular treats of freshly hewn human flesh.  And don't ask Dr. Logan where he got it.

There's a great deal of arguing among the principal players, with a measured dose of excellent zombie encounters in Acts One and Two.  There's just enough undead hanging around to keep the audience from getting bored amid all the yelling.  Needless the say, the whole operation is unsustainable.  In Act Three, one injured soldier loses his mind and, in a fit of vengeance or hopelessness (it's not clear), he lets a whole freight elevator full of zombies into the compound, and everyone pretty much gets eaten.  Dr. Bowman and her two civilian pals do their best to make a run for it out the "back door" of the underground complex, and their escape makes for some of the most entertaining and carefully constructed zombie kills in the film.  Cranky old Captain Rhodes is torn asunder in particularly fine fashion, and Bub turns in some fine moments as well before it's all gone to hell.

Although Romero has said that Day of the Dead is his favorite of the zombie film's he's made, and both critics and audiences generally appreciate the movie, this 1985 entry doesn't fare as well in comparison to 1978's Dawn of the Dead and 1968's Night of the Living Dead.  What's most interesting in the film -- the notions 1) that there are still some groups of survivors well after the initial collapse of civilization and 2) that there is some sort of consciousness inside a zombie -- seems to be cut off because of the need for the story to fit into a feature film and hence charge to the inevitable will-they-escape-from-catastrophe ending.  What's most distressing about the film is its one-sided portrayal of the military as largely corrupt and homicidal -- a carry-over, one suspects, from cynicism the Vietnam era.  One can see Romero struggling to find ways to extend the premise of the plot in new directions.  If only they would have given him a TV series!

All in all, Day of the Dead offers Romero's usual thoughtful take on the problems of people as they are brought out by disaster, with truly excellent make-up effects from Tom Savini and an action-packed third act. While not as fundamentally sound a narrative as his two earlier films, Day of the Dead is still a severed head and shambling shoulders above the usual zombie films of the period.

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