Thursday, April 14, 2011

30 Day Horror Challenge Day 14 - Your favorite zombie film

Well, my favorite zombie movie also happens to be my favorite movie of all time, so I’m gonna save that one for day 30. Instead, I’ll write about my second favorite zombie flick, Day of the Dead. Purists tend to see Romero’s Living Dead series as an original trilogy and a later trilogy instead of one series. Day of the Dead is generally considered to be the least of the original trilogy. I don’t get that at all. In my mind this movie is second only to Night. Heresy! Did I just say that Day of the Dead is better than the sacred Dawn of the Dead? It’s only by a narrow margin, but yes, for a lot of reasons.

This is by far the grimmest of the Living Dead movies. The situation has gotten progressively worse throughout the trilogy. In Night, there is hope. After all, it’s only the Eastern third of the United States and Willard is only about 17 miles from here. In Dawn, the problem is widespread, but we see humanity putting up a fight. In Day, we’ve lost. That’s it. We don’t see anyone else besides our merry little band of survivors, nor do we hear from or about any other pockets of humanity. Help isn’t coming. Humanity has lost against the zombies, and while one special zombie becomes a little more human, the humans are losing their humanity. The darker side of man’s nature is rearing its ugly head, and innumerable zombies are right outside the door. The most telling moment is in the opening sequence. Sarah, one of the scientists, has a zombie nightmare (without Thor, and kudos if you get that one). When she wakes up, she’s in a helicopter looking down on the deserted, ravaged streets of Miami. She wakes from a nightmare and reality is just as bad. Ain’t that a kick in the head?

Romero’s social commentary is razor sharp as always. Just like in the rest of the trilogy, as well as Land, Diary, and Survival, human vs. zombie remains as the overlying conflict, but the real issue is human vs. human in the face of the zombie threat. Romero is using his tried and true formula of trapping a small group of survivors together in a central location as the zombie threat looms outside and watching what they do. It’s what happens when people stop being polite, and start getting real. It’s The Real World: Zombie Apocalypse, or something like that. In Night, Romero was commenting on the racial tension of the 60’s. In Dawn, it was the rising crass commercialism of the 70’s. In Day, Romero beautifully skewers the macho, Reagan/Rambo militaristic posturing of the 80’s. We have a small band of scientists trying to find a way to reverse the process, or at least control the zombies, sharing an underground bunker with a bunch of soldiers who just want to kick some ass and aren’t too keen on all this science crap. While the scientists are peaceful (if, in Dr. Frankenstein’s case, a little nutty), the soldiers are brutal and idiotic. It shows what happens when those with the superior fire power are no longer held accountable. They impose their will through threats, intimidation, and force. I, being a bit of an anti-authority/anti-establishment kinda guy, like where Romero is going with this. The meatheads with power end up victimizing those trying to solve the problem rationally. Sounds like a few issues we’re facing today with quite a few countries governments, huh?

Aside from that “deep meaningful interpretation” stuff, there’s a lot to love about this flick just from a “good fun horror flick” standpoint. The claustrophobic atmosphere that George specialized in these films is incredibly well done. The characters in this flick are, with one exception, absolutely great and well played all around. Has there ever been a villain you cheered harder for to get what’s coming to them than Captain Rhodes? I dare you not to cheer when the bastard gets eviscerated. Dr Frankenstein is second only to Doc Brown in the non-evil mad scientist role. My personal favorites, though, are John and McDermott. They’re not soldiers or scientists; they’re just there to “Fly the whirlybird mon” and try to stay the hell out of the whole conflict. I would have loved to have seen a spin-off sequel or prequel following those 2 characters. Even the zombies are iconic in this one, particularly Bub. Like it or not, this is where the “thinking” zombie emerged, and it’s done well here. Sherman Howard, who went on to have a hell of a career, manages to convey the mental struggle of the missing link zombie without words but with believability. The only character that doesn’t work is Miguel. Yeah he’s suffering from PTSD, and we’re supposed to feel sorry for him, but he’s so whiney and annoying that I find myself saying “Would you just die already!?!”

As far as the effects go, zombie gore effects, and this is a bold statement, have never been done better before or since. Yes folks, the epitome of zombie gore was reached with PRACTICAL effects in 1985. Look at Dr. Tongue. That makeup is flawless. Look at the half bodies on the tables. How about the gut spilling zombie, or the evisceration of Rhodes, or…or any effect in the movie? The best work of Savini’s career. The zombies, even aside from the gore, are great looking. Much of that is due to a young Greg Nicotero, who also appears as one of the soldiers. This was the makeup and effects legend’s first film, and his abilities were already top notch. Day’s zombie makeups are as advanced beyond Dawns as Dawns were beyond Nights.

Day of the Dead us often unfairly treated like the redheaded stepchild of the Living Dead series. Why? It’s got great characters, it’s atmospheric, it’s got a story that works on a literal and allegorical level, and its got some of the best special effects ever created. Sure, it can get a little talky in some spots, but the undead mayhem is more than worth the trip. Unfortunately, it also has the distinction of being the only one of the living Dead series whose remake was a complete and total failure. Two severed thumbs up. Nathan says check it out.


Andrew Green said...

Dude, I totally agree....
I remember watching an interview with Romero, and he said something like:

"Well, most people like Dawn of the Dead best. Second is Night of the Living Dead.

And then there are the trolls. They get a thrill out of the gruesomeness of Day of the Dead, and they tend to be pretty interesting."

Keep in mind that I am strictly paraphrasing here, and Romero smiled when he used the word "trolls."

But, yeah -- a part of me likes Day of the Dead best, as well.

SonOfCelluloid said...

I don't necessarily like it best, as no movie ever can touch the God that is Night of the Living Dead, but I really don't get why everyone seems to think that Dawn is better. Dawn is great, don;t get me wrong, but Day is a little better. I guess I'm a "troll."

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