THIS WEEK: Day of the Dead (1985) George A. Romero’s walking dead trilogy follows a group of survivors living in an underground military base.
HOW IT STARTS: A scientist experiments on the walking dead to see if they have any conscience, memories, or instincts.
THE PREFACE: Romero created an entire sub-genre on his own. This legendary horror director is responsible for the zombies fans know and love. In 1968 he filmed the black & white cult classic Night of the Living Dead. This independent film went on to great success, playing in Midnight Screenings across the country for years on end. Day of the Dead is the third entry of the Living Dead series. Considered by fanboys as a trilogy, Romero would continue to expand upon his universe with several more movies in recent years. While sequel Dawn of the Dead gets most of the attention, partly due to its shopping mall setting and extreme gore, the third entry is much more intriguing.
THE SET-UP: Once again, Romero comments on society underneath the surface. This time around the military are the focus. Our survivors bunker down in an underground base during the zombie apocalypse. The most interesting part involves the experimental work of a curious scientist.
The scientist operates on zombie corpses to learn more about how they function. The more compelling angle is his research on the undead mind. He wants to know their capacity for understanding and any instinctual remnants from their human life. Since this is a horror movie about the walking dead you don’t really expect any intellectual content. What’s most surprising is how well it compliments the fictional world and makes it seem even more real. If the zombie apocalypse ever actually happened, scientists would definitely be studying these monsters.
Don’t worry, horror fanboys, Romero still delivers the scares, the tension, and the gore. Some of the scariest scenes come from what man is capable of. Positions of power shift after the outbreak. Soldiers who felt like grunts, now control the world. These pawns become kings. New-found power corrupts these men with guns, further endangering the civilian survivors.
THAT MOMENT: A zombie stands before several objects. A phone. A razor. His neck is bound in chains. His movement is restricted. A scientist is studying his every move. This is That Moment. We watch the oddly expressive and emotive corpse remember what an object is – conceptually. It’s a philosophical debate more suitable for scholars, but it begs the question: Are certain instincts hardwired into our brain? Are zombies driven by the instinctual will to kill and eat? If they can remember the concept of an object, can they remember the concept of “the self?”
The Moment is haunting. The zombie reaches out for a phone and brings it to his ear. He reaches for the razor and brings it to his cheek, trying to shave. This living dead “creature” demonstrates memory. The next layer of horror is they could be trained to “behave” and those thousands of walking dead they already killed could have been saved. Conducted research also gives hope for a possible cure in the future.
THAT MOMENT REMEMBERED: Who would have expected to feel empathy for a zombie? Romero orchestrated these sequences perfectly. The make-up on this featured undead is spectacular because it gives just enough monster and just enough humanity. We wonder what it’s thinking, where in most other zombie flicks the concept never crosses our mind.
On the surface, these experiment sequences might slow down the movie and bore some viewers – especially the gore hounds; however, interpreting the scene can be rewarding for movie nerds like me. Romero doesn’t hit us over the head with themes or anything. Like his other films, their is some thematic context and social commentary, but it’s never too forceful.
Day of the Dead feels like the forgotten sibling of the original Romero trilogy. Dawn is much more aggressive and goretastic, while Night has O.G. status. That doesn’t mean the third entry is a slouch. It fully delivers on what you expect from a horror movie – and then some.
One of my favourite sequences is more psychological. Our hero checks a calendar on the wall. There’s a few Xs, so the apocalypse has been going on for a while. Suddenly, all these zombie hands reach through somehow. We’re dazed and confused until we realize it’s a dream. Romero clearly demonstrates the effect of this environment on the psyche. This Moment always freaked me right out.
There is one absolutely disgusting sequence where a man is torn apart and zombies gorge themselves on his entrails. It’s one of horror cinema’s most shocking scenes ever and the main reason why this movie was banned or X-rated in certain territories.
‘Tis the season to dive into some cult classic horror flicks. If you start with Romero this Halloween, you can’t go wrong. Zombies are all the craze now-a-days, but these early films started it all. And old school fans… it’s time to dust off that VHS and re-watch this legendary horror movie.
NEXT WEEK: Guillermo del Toro’s dark and beautiful, PAN’S LABYRINTH.