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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
When I was a sophomore in high school, I remember reading about the 1978 zombie movie classic Dawn of the Dead, George Romero’s masterpiece sequel to his 1968 cult classic and critical favorite Night of the Living Dead. I had seen Night many times over, perhaps due to its status in the public domain. I had never seen Dawn, however, but reading about it really piqued my interest. The concept behind a small band of survivors holding out in a shopping mall during the zombie apocalypse is still something that still fascinates me, even after eventually taping the movie off of Cinemax or something during the summer of 1998 and subsequently wearing out the tape (I eventually bought a VHS copy from Suncoast and then a DVD from Amazon). Even if, in subsequent years, zombie movies became overly ubiquitous and cheap looking, I still loved Dawn of the Dead.
It would be a few more years before I got a chance to see Day of the Dead, the 1985 follow up to Dawn and the second sequel in the series. I knew that Day existed, but I had never seen it commercially available to view and none of the rental stores in my hometown carried it. It’s hard to imagine now, but back then it could be exceedingly difficult to get information about certain movies. Then, in about 2000 or so, a Video Update rental chain opened in my town (only to close about three years later unfortunately). The new store carried Day of the Dead, and there was of course much rejoicing. I remember the night I first watched it. I gathered a few people in my buddy’s basement, we ordered pizzas, and we geared up to watch what could only be the most amazing follow up to the best zombie film ever made.
I was, of course, disappointed. I can’t speak for my friends, but I don’t think they were able to process what they saw either. Dawn of the Dead was a dynamic, sprawling film with fantastic action set pieces, a great setting, and a solid cast of characters (along with Night’s main character Ben, actor Ken Foree’s heroic Peter Washington in Dawn is still one of the great black protagonists of film, which is really sad in a way considering the film is nearly 40 years old). Dawn also had a great script that lampooned the overly commercial nature of society, and even if its message wasn’t subtle, it was at least interesting enough to set it apart from the usual generic scripts found in horror films. In contrast, there is nothing like that in Day of the Dead. Dawn had something to say about society and its collapse – Day has nothing of the like.
If Night of the Living Dead showed the beginning of society’s collapse and Dawn showed its middle, then Day certainly shows what could only be the end of our world as we know it. One character in the film speculates that zombies outnumber human beings at the rate of around 400,000 to one. Such odds give the film an overwhelming sense of nihilism that I’m not sure Romero intended. In Dawn, there’s still a sense that other people are out there. The various television broadcasts and the biker assault at least portray that. In Day, there’s virtually nothing like this. In the beginning of the film, a small group of scientists, soldiers, and government contractor civilians search a town for signs of human beings but find nothing. In terms of scale, Day is nothing like Dawn at all, and that is a huge disappointment. In some ways, it feels like these films were made by two completely different directors.
The main story in Day of the Dead revolves around the scientific research of three people who try, through various methods, to help the remnants of humanity deal with the zombie plague in an underground research facility in Florida. Dr. Logan believes he can domesticate zombies, making them safe for humankind to be around. The sheer number of zombies out there in the world immediately makes me think this plan isn’t going to work out, even if Dr. Logan finds some individual success. Dr. Bowman, the film’s main character, still holds out hope that she can find a cure for the zombie disease. At this point, however, it doesn’t seem to matter if they can synthesize a cure or not. There are just too few people left in the world for a cure to really be worth the time or effort. Dr. Fisher, the third and most worthless scientist, is kind of just around, though he seems to support Dr. Bowman more so than Dr. Logan, who the two nickname “Frankenstein” for his more radical and disgusting research methods (Logan is almost always covered in blood and guts).
The other two factions in Day of the Dead are the military and the government contractors. The contractors are John, the African-American helicopter pilot (continuing the series’ trend of solid black protagonists) and Bill, the engineer/electrician with hints of an Irish accent. John and Bill, despite not being scientists, are arguably the most important people in the underground research facility. John is the only one on the base who can pilot the helicopter, meaning he needs to be alive for any sort of last-ditch escape effort. Bill is the man who maintains the communications equipment (their orders come from Washington, though they haven’t heard from the capitol in ages) and keeps the lights on, again meaning he is indispensible to the group. The military men are a mostly sadistic group that includes Capt. Rhodes, the de facto leader who rules with violence and intimidation, Rhodes’ cronies, and the quiet, weak Pvt. Salazar, who is clearly suffering from PTSD (and who also serves as Dr. Bowman’s love interest).
The problem with the characters in Day of the Dead is that, outside of Logan, Bowman, and perhaps arguably Salazar, there isn’t much depth to them. Dr. Logan is the most fleshed out character in a lot of ways, and really the only one to stand up to the sadistic, insane Capt. Rhodes. Logan’s logical questioning of Rhodes’ plans serves as some of the more grounded dialogue in the film. Dr. Bowman is another complicated character with fairly clear motivations (she wants to either find a cure for this madness or get the hell out of this facility). John and Bill are my favorite characters in the film, but because of their needed status in the group they have become a bit complacent, though John does dream of living out his last days in the sun where it’s warm and beautiful. Pvt. Salazar is the most complicated character in the film. Clearly suffering from PTSD (and honestly, who wouldn’t be given the circumstances?), he is on edge, nervous, weak, and somewhat spineless. He can be an unsympathetic character, however, partially because of spinelessness.
Without any really compelling characters or a story with any sort of actual stakes, it is fairly difficulty to care
about much of anything going on in Day of the Dead. The military guys are particularly dumb and ruthless, even when it flies in the face of all things sane and logical. They are evil for really no reason other than to serve the story. Take, for instance, Pvt. Steele and Pvt. Rickles, who are almost always dumb, angry, and laughing maniacally. How these two managed to survive the apocalypse is a miracle in and of itself. They aren’t even the fascinating type of dumb characters like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They are so dumb that when the zombie floodgates finally open (in what is essentially the film’s only action set piece), the two cannot do all that much of anything, despite having somehow survived all of this length of time. Capt. Rhodes is probably the absolute worst character in the film, however, because there is absolutely no reason for him to act as insane as he does at any reason in the film other than to, again, service the plot.
The most compelling moments in the film take place almost solely around the actions of Dr. Logan, who is performing grisly, unethical experiments on dead soldiers and zombies, with the military unaware of his more gruesome work. Dr. Logan’s attempts to pacify the zombie horde meets some success in the form of Bub, a zombie who Dr. Logan has, against all odds, domesticated. Bub listens to classical music on headphones, plays with everyday items, and even refuses to bite Dr. Logan’s arms when Logan gets too close. Bub serves as his most successful experiment, and perhaps the key to saving the remnants of humanity from the zombies, if only Dr. Logan can continue to make Bub remember his human past. Unfortunately, Capt. Rhodes and his cronies don’t cotton to Dr. Logan’s liberal ways with the zombies, and this combined with Logan’s secret experiments on deceased soldiers (which Rhodes ultimately becomes aware of), basically spell Logan’s doom, as he his gunned down horrifically, with a devastated Bub watching on.
This also means doom for doctors Bowman and Fisher, who must now plan on escaping the compound with
Bill and John, without the military knowing. Rhodes, however, is somehow no dummy despite being incredibly dumb for most of the film’s 100 minute running time. Eventually, all hell does break loose, with the suffering Pvt. Salazar unleashing the zombie horde into the compound. The movie becomes a race against time and zombies in its final third, where we are finally privy to some good zombie gore courtesy of awards-winning effects artists Tom Savini and Greg Nicotero (who has gone on to work on the hugely popular though incredibly stupid The Walking Dead television show). This culminates in most of the military men being absolutely ripped apart in glorious gory fashion by extras painted gray to portray zombies (much like in Dawn). Even good old Bub gets revenge for the death of the good Dr. Logan, as he uses his newfound humanity to shoot Rhodes three times, slowing him down enough to be absolutely decimated by a horde of bloodthirsty zombies.
The film ends at an exceedingly weird point. Bowman, Bill, and John escape the compound intact (Dr. Fisher had been blown away by Rhodes at point-blank range just before the zombies attack) but find the zombies marching steadily towards the helicopter, which is their only means of escape. The film is thus set up for a showdown between our three heroes, characters who have spent the movie building up pretty much the only goodwill in the entire thing outside of the special effects, and the rampaging zombies. When the three reach the helicopter, however, the film does not give us the satisfying conclusion of Dr. Bowman blowing away zombies. We get, instead, a cutaway to a tropical island, where Dr. Bowman suddenly wakes up from a dream, sees John and Bill on the beach soaking up the sun, and marking off another day in her calendar. The films then ends, with this totally weird juxtaposition between scenes and really no concrete explanation of what happened to our heroes except that they are now living on a tropical beach. It offers incredibly little closure, and then just ends.
This was what was perhaps most disappointing. The film didn’t earn this abrupt “happy” ending whatsoever. I
learned later that Romero’s original vision for Day of the Dead was interrupted by budget and script woes. Romero’s artistic need to release the film unrated apparently meant the budget had to be cut from seven million to three and a half million (production companies are less likely to release movies unrated theatrically because theaters are less likely to carry them). Due to budget constraints, Romero was forced to re-script the film, thus altering his original vision considerably. Joe Pilato, the actor who portrayed Capt. Rhodes, was cast for this reason as well, giving us perhaps the most unnecessarily sadistic villain in the history of film. The filming locations offered trouble of their own, with the humidity of the underground facility largely responsible for unpleasant conditions for both the actors and the special effects.
Day of the Dead did not do well at the box office. Whereas Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead were both successful domestically (and outright huge hits internationally – Night was the number one film in all of Europe in 1969 and Dawn grossed 40 million dollars overseas), Day grossed just 5.8 million dollars in US theaters (though it was more successful overseas, where Romero has a much larger following), making it the least successful film in the series to that point. It would be twenty years before the release of Land of the Dead, a widely released moderately successful 2005 follow-up to his Dead trilogy of films. In the meantime, Romero worked on Stephen King adaptations and collaborations with Italian horror maestro Dario Argento. He never really experienced the acclaim and success of the first two Dead films, though he has worked fairly consistently in the years since Day of the Dead.
The sprawling, thematically rich Dawn of the Dead is one of my favorite horror films of all time, if not my all time favorite. It has some legitimately great characters, fantastic low-budget effects work, and a solid script that offers more than the typical horror film. Day of the Dead has none of this. The film was hamstrung by a low budget and a poor script. It has few memorable characters or action set pieces. It isn’t nearly as stylish as either of the films that precede it. Though it has a few interesting elements (Dr. Logan’s domestication of Bub and arguably Salazar’s PTSD), it is largely empty and not worth revisiting. As the third film in a critically and commercially successful series, it is almost wholly a failed endeavor. I felt this way upon originally watching Day of the Dead nearly a decade and a half ago and I still feel this way today. The film is available on Netflix (sadly, Dawn of the Dead is not), but it’s not even really worth watching unless you’re wholly interested in the series. Even in that case, prepare for disappointment.