It should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone who knows me that I tend to have very firm opinions about almost everything under the sun. This is especially true of films and music: to paraphrase myself, I find nothing idle about idle entertainment. Many of the films (The Godfather, Taxi Driver, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly) and music (Faith No More, punk, thrash) that I grew up on are still vitally important to me as I stare my 40th birthday in the face: my opinion on much of this hasn’t wavered one iota since my youth.
This is not to say, however, that my mind cannot be changed…far from it. In fact, I like to think that I’m able to constantly re-evaluate old favorites and find new, timely reasons for their rankings. Sometimes, my re-evaluations produce a rather interesting effect: rather than continue to love some films, I find myself rather…well, un-fond of them. A classic case in point would be Kevin Smith’s inaugural ode to slackerdom, Clerks. When I was younger, Clerks was just about the freshest, funniest, edgiest film I’d ever seen. I thrilled to the antics of Dante and Randal, ran around quoting the dialogue endlessly and played the soundtrack until I had every chord memorized. Years later, however, I had occasion to revisit Clerks and found something rather interesting: it’s a pretty terrible film. It’s juvenile, vulgar, silly and far less clever than it thinks it is. It also looks like crap, even when compared to other zero-budget indies. In essence, everything I once held dear about the film had become flipped on its head and I realized something very important: Clerks is totally badass when you’re seventeen but decidedly less so when you’re in your thirties.
This re-evaluation, however, can also go the other way. Sometimes, I can re-evaluate something that I formerly disliked (a good example would be John Wayne films) and find a new appreciation and kinship for them. Just as Clerks is a great example of something that’s only applicable to the young, perhaps these other films (less flash, more substance) are only applicable to those who have a bit of experience and life under their belts. In this spirit of rediscovery, I sought to finally answer a question that’s been bugging me for decades: why don’t I like George Romero’s Day of the Dead?
You see, Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead occupy a pretty high place in my overall pantheon of influential, invincible films. Dawn of the Dead, in particular, has been so fundamentally important to my overall disdain of the world around me that it almost functions as ground zero for both my political AND social viewpoints. Night of the Living Dead is one of the best, scariest horror films ever. I’ve watched both of those films at least 15-20 times since I was young and my opinion on them has never wavered: I may understand them better than I used to but I love them no less. Day of the Dead, however…that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish, as it were.
When I was younger, the only thing I ever really loved about Romero’s third zombie film (fourth if you count The Crazies) was the jaw-dropping (or ripping, whichever you prefer) practical effects. Working with effects maestro Tom Savini again, Day of the Dead is a virtual clinic in special effects, featuring more graphic evisceration, disembowelment and gore effects than you can shake a stick at. A few of the set-pieces, such as the shovel to the zombie’s mouth and Rhode’s amazing ripped-in-half bit, still set a benchmark for practical effects in this day and age. While there might not be quite as much sustained zombie mayhem as in Dawn of the Dead, Day has more than its fair share of gut-munching. This, unfortunately, ends up being its only real asset.
The biggest overall problem with Day of the Dead is really quite simple: it’s just not a very good film, especially as a thematic follow-up to the far superior Dawn of the Dead. The acting, in particular, is atrocious, something that the first two films only had to deal with in fits and starts. In this outing, the bad actors have overrun the good in a similar manner to the zombies and we’re left with a bunch of stock character types shouting at each other in a variety of accents for the better part of 90 minutes. The worst offenders, in a pretty crowded field, would have to be the utterly ridiculous and laughable Antone DiLeo, as Miguel; Joe Pilato as Capt. Rhodes and G. Howard Klar as Steel. DiLeo plays Miguel like some kind of pewling man-baby, right down to the strange, disaffected way that he delivers his lines: he constantly seems in danger of throwing a hissy fit and he usually does. Pilato’s Rhodes is a thoroughly ludicrous military caricature, a creature that spends so much time screaming, howling and gobbling scenery that I’m not entirely convinced he wasn’t some sort of bio-engineered answer to the zombie threat. Klar just spends the entire film cackling and swearing, sometimes at the same time, sometimes separately (for variety). He’s a worthless character, even when measured against the admittedly low bar set for horror movie villains.
When the acting isn’t terrible, it rises to the level of merely serviceable, at least in the case of the film’s three leads: Lori Cardille as Sarah, Terry Alexander as John and Jarlath Conroy as McDermott. Even though Alexander and Conroy hurl their lines in thick Jamaican and Irish accents, respectively, they’re at least offering some modulation in their emotions: unlike everyone else, they don’t seem constantly pissed off. Cardille’s Sarah is an incredibly bland heroine but she’s not an over-sexualized one, which is at least a change of pace. Similar to the other two, Cardille still spends most of the film shouting…but not all of it, which marks a distinct break from the sustained cheese-fest provided by Pilato, DiLeo and Klar. Of particular note is Richard Liberty as Dr. Logan (“Frankenstein”), the insane doctor who tries to teach Bub to use a Walkman. He’s the only actor who actually seems to nail the appropriate tone for his character, playing Logan as the kind of absent-minded, kindly nutjob who probably would get a huge kick out of seeing a zombie try to shave.
And then, of course, there’s that whole thing about Bub trying to shave. And use a Walkmen. And shoot a gun at the bad guys. And, you know, have feelings. You see, Day of the Dead is really where Romero jumped whole-hog into the idea that the zombies where capable not only of learning but, in a way, evolving. While there may have been hints of this in the previous film (who could ever forget that terrifying Hare Krishna zombie?), Day of the Dead makes this a primary focus. Perhaps Romero meant some sort of understated grandeur or sly social commentary in the scene where Bub dons headphones and displays childlike wonder at the music he hears. If this was his intent, however, it seems a little belied by the ridiculous shouted dialogue that precedes and follows it.
For my money, turning the zombies in Day of the Dead into sympathetic figures robs the film of most of its horrific elements. In its place, we’re left with, essentially, the story of a bunch of loudmouthed, crude soldiers who are stuck in a small, confined, underground space with a bunch of loudmouthed, crazy scientists. Since so much of the film is given over to these unpleasant characters shouting at each other (sometimes literally shouting, as in red-in-the-face, short of breath, need-to-take-five kind of shouting) and so little is given to any kind of world-building, it definitely seems as if the dialogue, risible as it is, is the main focus.
This makes sense when one realizes that Romero’s budget was slashed in half from its original figure, leading to some creative scrambling to make ends meet. As mentioned above, some of the effects work is absolutely astounding, the complete apex of what was possible in 1985. Some of the zombie makeup, however, is pretty awful and slap-dash, especially from up close. The abandoned city scene is nicely established but the rest of the film takes place in the nondescript underground bunker. Frequent Romero cinematographer Michael Gornick (the man behind the camera for Dawn of the Dead, Martin and Creepshow) shoots the film but it still manages to look ugly and drab. Even the score seems decidedly lackluster and generic, a huge step down from Goblin’s distinctive electronic score for Dawn of the Dead.
More than anything, Day of the Dead just seems like a tired, unnecessary film. While there is some social commentary going on, it seems to have devolved from the sharp satire on consumerism of the previous film into a dull treatise that boils down to “Why can’t we all just play nice?” It’s a nice sentiment, to be sure, but it makes for a severely by-the-book kind of film. Even if Romero’s eventual followup, Land of the Dead, was nowhere near a masterpiece, it still managed to have more invention and energy than Day did.
At the end of the day, I’m always going to have a lot of love for George Romero. Even if one were to discount his zombie films (insane but possible, I suppose), you’d still be left with a pretty impressive horror filmography: Martin, Creepshow, The Dark Half and Monkey Shines are all very solid and, in the case of Martin, pretty great films. By all accounts, Romero seems like a great guy, the kind of down-to-earth, blue-collar dude that you can’t easily imagine kickstarting an entire subgenre of film all on his lonesome. And then, of course, there’s Dawn of the Dead.
With that being said, however, my opinion on Day of the Dead has, sadly, remained pretty consistent: I may love most of Romero’s work but I just don’t care for Day of the Dead. I’ve tried to really examine the film, poke around in all of the nooks and crannies to see if I’m missing anything but I keep coming up empty.
By now, I really have to accept one thing and just move on: It’s not me, Day of the Dead…it’s you.