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Friday, July 27, 2018

Examining a Movie: Day of the Dead

Hey there my friendly neighborhood warp entities! Old Man Chaos is back in action just as I promised.

Almost a year ago, we learned of the passing of George A. Romero. While he was 77 years old and had lived a full life, I was very saddened when I saw it on my phone. If you have read this blog a bit you'll have noticed that Romero's dead films have a special place in my heart. Heck- my Plague Marines and Plague Zombies draw a lot of inspiration from those films!

I was lucky enough to have met Romero once. It was at NY Big Apple Convention at the Hotel Pennsylvania. This was I think in either fall 2005 or 2006 (I can't quite remember). Now this was before "Comicon" became the huge draw. There were plenty of smaller cons then (and now, but Comicon is obviously just huge). At any rate, George Romero was signing autographs. Naturally, I knew exactly what I wanted him to sign- a mini poster for Dawn of the Dead. When I finally got up to him I couldn't believe how tall he was. He was also very friendly and laid back. As he signed my poster I sheepishly asked him if there was going to be another Dead film after Land of the Dead (a film that I like quite a bit actually). He smiled and said something akin to "we shall see what happens". Now, he must have been asked that question 10 million times by every film and horror geek out there. But at no time did he show that. He was a friendly gentleman. Period.

Later in the Con, my brother and our friend Pete went outside to have a hot dogs and soda. While we were out there, Romero came out all by himself for a smoke. I wanted to go over and say "hey" but Pete was like "Let the man smoke in peace". Pete was right and so I left him alone. But it was awesome nevertheless.

The autographed mini poster is one of my most prized possessions. No, it has no certificate of authenticity. It is not numbered. Nor is it an original poster or something. None of that matters. This is special to me. It is now occupies a central place in my man-cave.

A while back, I did reviews of both NotLD and DotD, both as films and their interesting reflections on the times in which they were made. NotLD stands not just as a zombie film, but as a reflection of the uncertainties of a changing world (the 1960s), while DotD is a satire of our media and consumer obsessed society (the 1970s). It is those things for me that elevate the films beyond simple horror films. They have larger things to say about both history and the human condition. That makes them timeless.

After I watched Dawn of the Dead, I immediately sought out Day of the Dead on VHS. And immediately, I was disappointed. I really didn't like the film all that much. The movie lacked both the originality and action of the first two films. I recall watching it, hearing a lot of yelling and indiscriminate cursing, a fairly blood soaked finale, and then... a stupid ending. At the time, it was bland in comparison to the two that came before.

That was years ago, while I was in college. But of course, as one gets older, things change. A refined movie-viewing palette develops. New experiences and knowledge. Perhaps a growing amount of cynicism. But several years later when I revisited it I discovered that it was actually a powerful ending to the trilogy. Now some fans say Day is the best. I won't go that far. NotLD and DotD are superior films. But Day has a lot to offer, again about the human condition and the time period in which it was filmed. In previous reviews I went all out reviewing every nook and cranny of the movies. I won't do a beat for beat review here. Instead, I'll focus on some of the larger points that are threaded throughout the film and the trilogy as a whole.

Reaganism and the 1980s

Like the other two Dead films, this movie is an attempt at reflecting the times Romero was living in. This one is a bit different though, as it was made in the middle of the decade rather than at the end of a decade (which means he's commenting on things unfinished as it were). What exactly is he commenting on?

Well, in the 1960s America was going through a variety of identity crises- we were a changing nation in the 1960s, and NOTLD reflected the uncertainties of those changes. The 1970s saw America become helpless- ending of Vietnam, Watergate, Oil Crisis, etc. It also saw America become a lot more pessimistic and cynical.

The year 1980 became a bit of a turning point for America. The serious, though flailing, Jimmy Carter ran against Ronald Reagan, a Hollywood actor turned politician, promising to restore America via conservative programs. Reagan promised he would cut government spending, whilst increasing the size and power of the military. Trust Reagan, and he would solve the problems. Obviously, Reagan won that election.

At that point, "Reaganism" swept America. Liberals held Reagan in disdain, but also felt his vision was both flawed and dangerous. As Reagan increased the size of the armed forces, some Americans and Western Europeans alike thought he would unleash World War 3- massive protests were held in both America and Europe when Reagan wanted to deploy new missile systems in Europe. His rhetoric was also incendiary, calling the Soviet Union the Evil Empire. Finally (and importantly for this film), Reagan called upon scientists to create better (defensive?) weapons, such as the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI- popularly known as Star Wars).

But Reagan's pro-military stance did more than that. It permeated American culture. American films became more violent, more "gung-ho", if you will. Rambo was a popular hero, taking us back to Vietnam and "winning" it retroactively. On TV, cartoons such as G.I. Joe promoted both America's military and the idea that shooting is the answer to any problem. Jingoism was omnipresent in American pop culture.

This is the world of Romero that he is commenting upon in Day of the Dead. A small group of soldiers and scientists have been ordered to solve the "zombie problem". The soldiers are certain of their guns alright; however they are callous, crude, etc. Obviously Romero is criticizing Reagan militarism- for Rhodes, Steel, etc., shooting is the answer to the problem. The scientists don't escape Romero's criticism either, as embodied by the rather amoral but brilliant Dr. Logan. It is clear that Romero thinks that Reaganism isn't going to solve anything, but rather, make it all worse. Neither the soldiers nor the scientists can get us out of this jam, despite what Reagan says. Humanity's days are numbered, and not all the bullets in the world are going to change that.

Is It Just Me or Is Everybody Crazy?

Something that escaped me on first viewing but is now something obvious is that every single character but one is crazy. Yep. Batshit insane. All but one. This is what makes the film difficult to watch, as opposed to the previous Dead films. The world is effectively over- Zombies outnumber humanity by the hundreds of thousands to one. There is simply nothing left. All that's left of humanity might well be in that missile base. That the base is filled with trigger happy soldiers and oblivious scientists make it all the sadder and more pathetic.

As I said, the film must be understood from that point of view. Humanity is dead and the few stragglers are simply crazy. How could they not be? After all of this, how could they not be unhinged? Let's look at Rhodes for example. The death of his superior has put him in charge. Rhodes screams, he threatens, he yells, waves his gun, even at the most innocuous of things. If the zombie apoc hadn't happened he'd be a military prick blowhard. But since all went to hell, Rhodes is just about shattered, and it clearly shows.

Naturally, Dr. Logan (AKA Frankenstein) has also seen better days. It is obvious he is a smart man, but has lost touch with reality. He wants to understand the zombie problem- but at this stage what's the point? He is interested in their memories, and hopes to domesticate them, zombies like Bub. It doesn't seem to register that feeding Bub parts of dead soldiers might be a bad idea for many reasons. Nor does it register that there is no chance of actually solving the problem. Logan just seems interested in his macabre experiments, nothing more or less.

What about John, the chopper pilot? He seems sane on the surface, and he understands that there is no solving the zombie plague. His answer is that they should all forget the past (keep it buried in the silo he basically says) and just live their lives on an island some where How can one do that in the midst of hell on earth I'm not sure- hence I think John isn't too tightly wound either. His belief that the zombie plague is God's punishment against man doesn't make him sound any saner.

Surely the heroine and main character, Sarah, is sane. Again, on the surface she appears to be, but again this is not true. Sarah as it turns out truly believes that a solution can be found. That there is a way to reverse the effects of the zombie plague. She puts up with both Rhodes and Logan, hoping that a cure will be found. Despite her skills and demeanor, she is crazy if she really expects to end this. Her hallucinations/dreams show that she is falling apart as well.

No, the only sane character left in the entirety of the base is McDermott. Why? Because his solution is to drink booze. He is always wanting a drink from his flask throughout the film. He stays with John because he's the least insane and is a capable fighter (to protect McDermott). But the booze helps him cope with the situation- I think that's a rational response LOL. And if this lush is all humanity has left then you can appreciate Romero's sick sense of humor.

Is That Really The End?

One of the things that bugged me was that, once again, our main characters escape by helicopter, this time to a sunny island and Sarah, McDermott, and John live happily ever after. Night's ending was nihilistic, with all the main characters dead. Dawn's wasn't much better- they leave on a helicopter without much fuel left- they won't be getting too far. But this ending seems false- we leave it all behind just like John says and they're all OK?

Perhaps the ending IS false. As you will have noted, Sarah has been plagued by nightmares the whole time, earlier in the film. At the end, just before she gets into the helicopter, a zombie jumps out at her and then... she awakens on that beach. Suppose the zombie really did get her, and this last dream of a happily ever after is just that. It's not real. Her irrational mind is trying one last defense against the inescapable. If that is true, perhaps no one makes it out of that base after all. I do not know what Romero intended, but my hypothesis makes it fit better with Romero's other endings. (It still bugs me though).

At any rate, thus ends Romero's original Dead trilogy. Now he's gone on to make a few more Dead films, but they are all weaker efforts- even Land of the Dead, which I do enjoy, is not on the same level as these three. No contest. However, these three are secure, having originated a genre of film whose power today is undeniable. But it wasn't just blood and guts that made Romero's films. It was the subtext, the combination of real world issues in this apocalyptic setting that makes Romero's films worthy of being called "great". Day of the Dead, though not as strong as the previous two, continued that trend, if in a rather bleak and even more hopeless way (despite its "happy" ending). These three films are commentaries on the times in which they were made, and that makes them all the more unique and special.

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