Friday, October 31, 2014

Fear Flashback Friday: Day of the Dead (1985)

Day of the Dead (1985)

I have a confession to make: for the longest time this was my favorite Romero zombie movie. It was the first of his films I saw, which probably has something to do with it -though I'd definitely seen bits of Night and Dawn, probably through Fangoria. It came out when I was still in high school and video rentals were just getting going. The one movie theater in town had closed - not that they would have shown an unrated movie to begin with. While Evil Dead was the very first movie I rented, I think Day was in the very next batch of tapes.

I don't think it being the first was the only reason, though, as it remained my favorite of the bunch for a decade or more - long after I'd see the others. There was the gore, of course. The effects remain some of the most well-done of any horror movie - from 'Dr. Tongue' through the exposed brain to Rhode's disembowlment. Tom Savini is at his peak in Day and you can see his influence in every zombie productions since. (Particularly in The Walking Dead - special effects supervisor/co-executive producer Gerg Nicotero's first film was Day of the Dead, where he worked on both special effects and in front of the camera as Private Johnson.)   There was also the dark, introspective, almost nihilistic tone - particularly attractive to me as a depressive, introspective, and nihilistic teenager.

...down the halls of my local high school. Oh, wait, that's me.

But if I'm honest there's really only one reason why Day held the top spot in my affections for so long - and that reason is Bub.

The 80's had a lot of what I call 'character monsters.' In the 30's you had Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, the Wolfman, Mummy, and others - protagonists as well as antagonists. In the 80's there was Jason and Michael and Freddy. Monsters that had their own agency - and fan followings. And there was Bub - a zombie, yes, but also a fully realized character who is also arguably one of the heroes of the movie. Out of all the 80's movie monsters, he was my favorite.

As I got older my tastes widened somewhat (though they remain relatively shallow), and Day has fallen out of favor. Night is now my favorite of the Romero films, followed by Dawn. I still love Bub, though. Even as I type this I've got the Amok Time Bub figure staring at me, his reward bucket at his side.

The Medium
I've got the two disk DVD (DiviMax) Anchor Bay release from 2003. It was an excellent release for the time - with a ton of extras, including two commentary tracks, hundreds of stills, a documentary and even a PDF of the 'first draft' script. It still looks very good for a DVD, but if you're thinking about picking the film up in HD, the new Scream Factory release seems to be the way to go, if only for the new feature length documentary. (It also includes the commentary tracks from the Anchor Bay release.)

The Movie
A woman wakes in a white, cinderblock room. On the far wall is a calendar with the month of October showing. All the days have been crossed off. It's October 31, Halloween. She approaches and holds her hand out to touch the picture, an idyllic presentation of a family in a sunny pumpkin patch. Suddenly numerous rotting hands burst through the wall to grasp at her. And she wakes again, this time she's in a helicopter flying low over what appears to be an abandoned coastal city. But appearances can be deceiving...

I want to make a 'watch the hands' joke here.

In some ways this is my favorite section of the movie. The opening bit with the white room/zombie hands is cool and startling, but it's the all-too brief exploration of the abandoned city that really sticks in my head. All those empty streets, the abandoned vehicles, the debris, the alligator. I think this was really the first time the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse was presented - so many films before and since are occupied  more with the apocalypse itself, rather than the results (though I'm sure there are exceptions). The Walking Dead has been great at following up on this, though - and the early episode scenes with Rick in the remains of Atlanta remind me of this sequence in Day.

Zombie apocalypse or San Francisco after the Giants won?

Of course the city isn't really abandoned - it just doesn't belong to the living any more. The new occupants respond to the sounds of people shouting over a megaphone and the dead spill out into the streets, looking for fresh meat. (Amongst these zombies is one of the greatest zombie effects on film - the so-called 'Dr. Tongue' zombie, who has apparently had his face blown away by a shotgun blast - his lower jaw almost gone, his tongue flicking about in the breeze. (I ran an All Flesh Must be Eaten game that included a jawless zombie - one character was gummed and the others almost shot him, thinking he'd been bit.)

Faced with the obvious - that there are no survivors in the city, or at least none that can respond - the helicopter leaves and returns to the military instillation that is their base of operations. It's an underground complex set in a old mine, a place where a ton of things, including boats and old government documents, are stored. This is where the movie settles down into its real story - about a military that wants control, scientists who want to understand, and two guys who want to just enjoy the last dying embers of a world that's already burnt to a crisp.

On the military side we have Captain Rhodes, a high strung commander with only the most tenuous hold on his men and his sanity. His second in command is Steel, a blowhard and a bully. A number of other soldiers round out the unit, including the barely-holding-it-together Miguel.

This is the least shouty picture of Rhodes I could find.

 For the scientists we have the extremely tough and capable Sarah (the woman we met earlier) and Fisher (played by John Amplas, who was also the title character in Romero's Martin). I'm... not exactly sure what it is they do, exactly - supposedly they're looking for whatever caused the outbreak of undead. The lead scientist is a man named Logan, though all the soldiers call him Frankenstein. I know what Logan does - he experiments on zombies. Sometimes he carves them up - there's a memorable scene in his lab that includes a brainstem still attached to a body and a zombie that literally spills its guts - and sometimes he trains them.

"And the good news is... well, there is no good news."

The third group is in some ways the most interesting, but is also the least active in the plot. John, the pilot, and Bill McDermott, the radio operator. They're outsiders both figuratively and literally - they even live outside the underground complex, instead setting up a homey trailer deep within the mine itself. While the other groups struggle to find meaning and reason in a world gone mad both John and Bill are just trying to get by - doing their jobs, but nothing more.

"Why is there no food on this plate, mon."

Most of the film is about the conflict between the soldiers and the scientists. Rhodes wants answers - really, what he wants is a solution to the problem they have, which is that the dead are coming back to life and civilization has gone down the toilet. The scientists are struggling with more basic questions - like HOW the dead are coming back to life and WHY. That is, except for Logan - who really is trying to figure out a solution, unfortunately his research requires a steady stream of 'subjects' from a corral of zombies the military keeps in the mine, and that leads to the inevitable collapse of structure and the deaths of (almost) everyone involved.

I actually skipped a group, and it's an egregious error on my part. The zombies themselves form a distinct fourth group, represented by the one zombie that Logan has managed to train - Bub. The other zombies do what zombies do, mill about aimlessly until a living brain ambles by and then they get real focused. Bub has regained some contact with what he used to be before he died. He tries to shave with a razor, read a book - he even listens to Beethoven with an expression of surprise and, maybe, joy on his face. Bub, in some ways, represents a hope for the future- the possibility of human experience living on beyond death.

Though you can tell he's not quite there because he's skipping to the end of the book.

All the other characters don't seem to represent anything but hopelessness, really. The military just want to shoot their way out of everything, a physical and military solution that has no chance of succeeding. But the scientists are just as deluded - they're looking for an answer where there may be none, assuming that answering a hypothetical WHY is more noble and useful than just trying to get on with HOW. And John and Bill are really the worst - though their point of view seems to be the one Romero favors. And that point of view seems to be "we fucked everything up and even if we didn't God hates us so let's just give up." The sum total of human civilization, achievement and history should be dumped and forgotten. Yeah, there's a lot of absolute crap saved away in deep places as if it should mean something, but there's a lot of good as well. Baby. Bathwater. Whatever man, let's just get high and have babies that we never teach about anything. (And how offensive is John as a character, looking back at it - a lazy, weed-smoking black man from Jamaica? )

As long as I'm aimlessly ranting, WHAT THE HELL IS UP WITH THAT CLOWN?

Man, there's just something about this movie that provokes me to ramble about nothing - I guess because that's what most of the movie seems to be about, rambling about nothing. Luckily we get a lot of gory zombie-related goodness in between the shouty bits and an extended zombie assault on the base that provides some of the only comedy available in the film. Bub is awesome and Sherman Howard just kills with his performance - bringing more life and humanity to a zombie than most of the other human characters provide.

The Bottom Line
On one level Day of the Dead is a depressing shitstorm of violence, nihilism, pseudo-philosophical bullshit and indictments of both the military and science. On another it's a thoughtful, introspective look at what humanity means and what, if anything, is worth saving about it. And on yet another level it's a gory zombie romp with a fantastic zombie character and fantastic effects sequences.

I feel like I've been overly hard on Day while writing this - and the truth is it's only in the dissection of the film that I get annoyed with it. As a whole, I still very much enjoy the film - and Bub forever, man. Bub forever.

No, we salute YOU, Bub. We salute YOU.

No comments:

Post a Comment