Review: Day of the Dead (1985) (Zombie-licious?)

day of the dead 1985 1

“Is anyone there?”

George A. Romero’s conclusion to his ‘Dead’ trilogy, Day of the Dead, is thirty years old this year, so I thought what better way to celebrate than to watch it, and review it!!! After the first two aforementioned classic films of the trilogy (and of the zombie genre), how does the film to wrap up the trilogy hold up? Does it pale in comparison, or does it contribute its fair share to Romero’s zombie movie CV?

The plot of Day of the Dead is relatively simple: a group of survivors, some military, some from the scientific community, are on a mission to figure out what to do in the post-apocalypse of the zombie takeover. One scientist, Sarah, is trying to discover the cause of the virus that caused the zombie infection. Another scientists, Logan believes that the zombies can be domesticated and put to use by the humans. Zombies are captured, and then experimented on in his endeavour. However, the soldiers, there to protect them, begin to quarrel with the scientists, and things slowly fall apart from there…

I’ve read that this film has been described as a dull film with lots of philosophical talk with clumps of extreme gore to try and even things out. And, the fact that the films follows Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead increased my cynicism that Day of the Dead would not measure up. However, I was pleasantly surprised by it. Yes, it may be talky (too much, sometimes), but the discussions enliven the film. They draw the viewer in as a discussion between the viewer and the film. The discussions are there to expand on the themes and social commentary that Romero has always loved to explore.

Hands up?
Hands up?

“Can’t we just get along?”

Take, for example, the depiction of the military. The previous soldier in command, Major Cooper, dies. The psychotic Captain Rhodes takes over, and that’s when the fragile union of scientist and soldier begins to split. He wants a military solution to the zombie infection, not a scientific one. At one meeting, he threatens to shoot Sarah (or rather, have Private Steele shoot her, and then threatens to shoot Steele if Steele does not carry out Rhodes’ orders!). Steele and his buddy Rickles are loud and boisterous, using profanities as part of their common vocabulary. The soldiers see Sarah as an object of sexual conquest, referring to their large members. The military (especially Rhodes) cause the downfall of the small community they are part of. In Romero’s view, the military, more than the zombies, are the enemy here.

We can go deeper, of course. Apart from Sarah, the main character and ‘heroine,’ few of the human characters are likeable. None of the soldiers are likeable. Logan, the scientist, experiments on the zombies in a horrific manner, stripping them of vital organs (of course, you can see a commentary on vivisection during his scenes). Sarah’s boyfriend of sorts, Miguel, is a whimpering, pathetic man, who blames Sarah for all of his faults. “You’re strong, so what?” he mocks early on in the film. Bill, the radio man, and John, the coptor pilot, could not care less about contributing to the community. The major point of the film is that humans are their own worst enemy. It isn’t zombies that take down the small community deep underground; it is humans, tearing each other apart metaphorically with their psychological flaws and fears.

It’s telling that apart from Sarah, the only character I felt sympathy for is ‘Bub,’ the zombie that Logan is trying to domesticate. As the story develops, zombie Bub proves to have more humanity than most of the humans we see.  Presented with a razor, Bub looks in the mirror and scrapes his face with the razor, some hidden, internal memory spurring him on. He even manages to mumble ‘Hello Aunt Alicia’ into a telephone after Logan’s urging. When Rhodes comes in and doesn’t acknowledge Bub’s salute, Logan asks “how can we set a good example if we behave barbarically ourselves?” And that’s the point, isn’t it?

I love this phat beat! Play it, Logan!
I love this phat beat! Play it, Logan!

“Civil behavior must be rewarded,” Logan says. “If it’s not rewarded, there’s no use for it” 

And can we go even deeper? In Logan’s experiments, he has removed a zombie’s stomach, yet the zombie still tries to eat flesh. It’s “a deep, dark, primordial instinct” that is spurring the zombie on, according to Logan. Is it the deep, dark primordial instinct that is in humans as well? When civilisation is stripped away, when all of our logic and reason and emotions are stripped away, is violence all we have left? Are zombies human beings, just with no inhibitions and limited brain functions?

Of course, a zombie film can only survive on philosophy and social commentary for so long. Some people just watch zombie movies for the gore. Trust me, there’s plenty of blood and guts to sate the most desensitized soul. Organs flop out of bodies, bodies are torn in to, eyeballs are gouged out, limbs are hacked off, and there’s literally a lot of guts on show! The gore comes in big splurges then disappears for a while, but it builds up to a beautifully bloody and gruesome finale, where the death count reaches a high and blood fills the screen.

Day of the Dead is just as brilliant as its predecessors. Of course, they asked similar questions to Day of the Dead, especially about the nature of humans to destroy themselves. But neither predecessor put across its point so bluntly and forcefully. Day of the Dead is by far the bleakest of the three throughout its duration. Those looking for blood and guts will find it, but in occasional spurts. They won’t be disappointed, but the gore isn’t the main attraction. The script is what sticks in my mind, be it John’s disinterest in trying to solve the situation (his whole monologue to Sarah is brilliant: “So what you’re doing is a waste of time, Sarah. And time is all we got left, you know. What I’m doing is all there’s left to do…”), or the heated debate between Logan and Rhodes on what to do about the zombie situation. Some of the talking scenes can be long-winded, but they are necessary in Romero’s criticism of humanity. And that criticism has rarely been bettered…

VERDICT: 8/10. A little on the bloated side in terms of talking, but for a bleak and almost unrepentant critique of humanity, look no further than Day of the Dead. A fitting end to a trilogy where zombies aren’t the real enemy: it’s been humans all along.

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