Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Film Appreciation - A Spook Ride for Trolls

Cody Hamman supports the (former) underdog with Film Appreciation for George A. Romero's 1985 film Day of the Dead.

George A. Romero's Day of the Dead, the final chapter in his initial Dead trilogy, was not well received when it was first released in 1985. Maybe that's because some fans felt like its scope and tone were a letdown after the gleeful, large scale adventure that 1978's Dawn of the Dead had been. Romero has said that those first three Dead films reflect the attitude of the times they were made in. 1968's Night of the Living Dead was a reflection of the anger of those days, which fuelled the cultural revolution in the United States. By the late '70s, people were having fun, partying and being happy consumers - thus the tone of Dawn. But by 1985, those good times were coming to an end, collapsing into something darker and more suspicious. Day of the Dead is a much darker, dirtier film than Dawn, with angry, feuding characters - they're reminiscent of those in Night in the way they just can't find a way to get along - who are trapped in a grimy, bleak location that's a far cry from the wish fulfillment setting of Dawn's abandoned shopping mall.

Or maybe fans didn't react well to it initially because of the way Romero handled the zombies this time around. There is a clear evolution going on here, which was always his intention. While giving an interview on the set of Dawn, he said there were more Dead stories to tell because "the zombies are still dumb." Not all of the zombies in Day are dumb... Although I don't think there was much of a negative reaction to this story element, because even when Day was looked down upon people still loved the "smart" zombie Bub.

Maybe they didn't like the intensity of some of the performances. This one goes big. Some might say it goes over-the-top.

Maybe some fans resented the fact that Romero had to scale down his original vision. When he first wrote the screenplay, the budget necessary to bring that version of the story to the screen was $7 million. The producers were willing to go forward with a $7 million Day of the Dead, but with one stipulation: the movie would have to be rated R, since only a certain number of theatres would show an unrated film. Determined that Day would be unrated, Romero rewrote the script and condensed his ideas into a story that could be made for half the price. I have read Romero's original script, and I don't feel sorry that it couldn't be made. I like the finished version of Day better than what was on those pages, and feel like all of the best ideas made it into Day and Romero's next Dead film, Land of the Dead. If a fan was upset that the original script couldn't be made, they shouldn't have been so upset that they took it out on the film. Romero didn't. In fact, he would go on to say that Day of the Dead was his favorite of the three to watch.

For a couple decades, there weren't a lot of fans who shared Romero's choice of favorite. Although I loved Day from the first time I saw it (which wasn't until around 1995, when it finally showed up in a local video store - and that was only two years after I found out the movie even existed), the film did not have a great reputation in the horror community. When I first got onto the internet, I was shocked to see how many people didn't like Day. It was definitely the black sheep of the franchise for quite a while.

Whatever the issue was, viewers seem to have gradually learned to let it go. Over the last fifteen years or so, Day of the Dead has gained acceptance and is now considered a classic alongside Night and Dawn. The film is so popular at this point, when Arrow in the Head recently posted a video defending this former black sheep, there were readers who seemed to be unaware that there was ever a time when Day was considered to be a substantially lesser film than its predecessors.

I've been very glad to see the tides change for Day of the Dead, because I was always of the opinion that Night, Dawn, and Day formed the greatest trilogy in horror history. All three of the films rank at the top of my list of all-time favorite horror movies. Night is the movie I have watched the most, Dawn is a movie I would love to live inside of, and Day is the one I've shown the most support to at conventions, because it was the underdog. It's not such an underdog anymore.

The film begins with our heroine Sarah (Lori Cardille, daughter of Pittsburgh broadcaster/horror host "Chilly Billy" Cardille, who appeared in Night of the Living Dead) having a nightmare, and this scene I can take or leave, even though it gives us the iconic image of zombie hands bursting through a concrete wall. When Sarah wakes up, though, we're plunged into a wonderful post-apocalyptic sequence.

Sarah is riding in a helicopter being flown by a man named John (Terry Alexander) with radio operator Bill McDermott (Jarlath Conroy) and Army soldier Miguel Salazar (Anthony Dileo Jr.), going one hundred miles each direction down the Florida coast, broadcasting radio messages from Sarasota to the Everglades, desperately trying to find other survivors of the zombie apocalypse. They land in a city that looks like a disaster area so Miguel can call out through a megaphone.

Day boasts an excellent score by frequent Romero collaborator John Harrison, and we get a great sampling of it in this sequence. A newspaper blowing around on the street features the headline "The Dead Walk!", and we quickly find that to be true. Miguel's calls through the megaphone don't bring out any fellow survivors, they only stir up the zombies that now inhabit the city. The dead come streaming out into the street (an alligator moving in their midst) and start walking toward this sound...

Sarah and company bail on this mission and go back to their home base, which happens to be a former mine turned underground storage facility, the Seminole Storage Facility. If you go back far enough in this mine, you'll reach an empty nuclear missile silo. The exteriors of Day of the Dead were filmed in Florida, where Romero had a home at the time, but the interior of the mine location was shot at an actual mine turned storage facility, Wampum Underground Warehouse and Vehicle Storage, in Pennsylvania, where most of Romero's movies were shot. That missile silo was a real silo in Pennsylvania, too. The mine looks great on film, but it also looks like a place that would be absolutely miserable to live in.

And the characters who live in this mine are absolutely miserable. Sarah is a scientist who has been studying the zombies, trying to figure out why the dead have come back to life in hopes that she can find a way to reverse the process. When the world fell apart, the government sent Sarah and fellow scientists Dr. Fisher (John Amplas) and Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty) to this location so they could do their research. John was put there for transportation, Bill to do his thing with the radios. A team of soldiers were put there to keep the scientists safe. There were other scientists, there were other soldiers, but some have died off over time. At this point, there are twelve people living in the mine, and the soldiers are Steel (Gary Klar), Rickles (Ralph Marrero), Torrez (Taso Stavrakis), Johnson (Greg Nicotero), Miller (Phillip G. Kellams), and Miguel.

Major Cooper was in charge of the soldiers, but Sarah and the others find that Major Cooper has died while they were out. The man in charge now is Captain Rhodes (Joseph Pilato)... Every soldier in this facility whose personality really comes through in the film is a horrible person; they're testosterone driven, off-kilter douchebags. Even Miguel, who Sarah has been in a relationship with. They've hit a rough patch now, as Miguel is collapsing from stress and resents the fact that Sarah remains strong. But the worst of them all is Rhodes.

When I said that viewers might find some performances over-the-top, I was thinking of Pilato's performance as Rhodes in particular. Rhodes is a vulgar, dangerous, despicable man who is in a perpetual rage, always on the edge of shouting at people and threatening to have them killed. Pilato gets loud... and I love it. I find this to be the greatest douchebag performance in cinema history. Fisher makes the comment that "I thought Cooper was an asshole, but he was a sweetheart next to Rhodes", and I think of this as Romero referencing the hot-headed Cooper character from Night of the Living Dead, the man who's the reason that there's so much fighting within the group of people. Cooper was an asshole, but he has nothing on Rhodes.

The fact that Rhodes is in charge is a major problem, and the way Dr. Logan - whose experiments have earned him the nickname Dr. Frankenstein - approaches his work doesn't help matters. In contrast to Sarah, Logan thinks finding a way to reverse the process is hopeless, because there are far too many zombies in the world now: he estimates humans are outnumbered 400,000 to 1 at this point. Logan's idea is to find a way to get the zombies to behave themselves. And while testing his "they can be taught to behave" theory, it's clear that this man is suffering from some major mommy and daddy issues.

There is indication that Logan might be right, though. The zombies display evidence that they are learning. Part of the mine is full of zombies, and that area is separated from the living quarters by a wooden corral where the soldiers can capture zombies and put them in collars so they can be taken to "Frankenstein's lab". However, when the soldiers go to the corral to scream into the darkness and draw out fresh zombie subjects, zombies don't come like they used to. They know what happens when they go to the corral.

Then there's Logan's star pupil, the aforementioned Bub (Howard Sherman). Logan gets through to Bub, teaches him how to behave, bonds with the living dead man, and Sherman is amazing in the role. Logan is so successful at reaching the humanity that's still buried somewhere within Bub, it even becomes apparent that the zombie was once a soldier himself. With his groaning attempts at speech and the expressions on his face, Sherman makes us care about this walking corpse. Every other zombie in the film is just a monster, there to tear someone apart or get blasted in the head, but Bub is a real character, and if he were to get killed it would be sad.

Bub looks great, as do all of the zombies featured in this film. We're deeper into zombie apocalypse than we've been before, and even though zombies decompose more slowly than the average corpse - Logan estimates it would take 10 to 12 years for one to decompose so much that it can no longer get around - some of them are still clearly starting to rot. They're dirty and gross - it's special effects artist Tom Savini making up for the fact that the zombies in Dawn of the Dead were simply painted grey.

The mine in this film is a pressure cooker, and we know it's only a matter of time before things go terribly wrong. There's no way these people are going to be able to survive together. And things do go wrong in several ways. They go wrong with Logan, because he unfortunately has a tendency to use the bodies of dead soldiers in his experiments and feeds Bub human meat as a treat reward. Things go wrong with Miguel. Things go wrong between Rhodes and... everybody. These people have been down in this mine for a long time, but by the end of the film their time in the mine will be over, and the place will be filled with zombies.

When the zombies come pouring into the mine, some streaming through the open corral and others riding down on the entrance elevator, it is a glorious sight to behold. Even more glorious are the kills of the characters they get their hands on. People who die at the hands of zombies in this movie die very badly, and Savini and his crew show why it was wise of Romero to go for an unrated release. The effects are incredible and disgusting. One of these kills ranks among my all-time favorite screen deaths: it's a kill where a man's head is slowly ripped off, and as his vocal cords stretch his screams get higher and higher.

Dawn of the Dead had action sequences throughout, but Day of the Dead saves its action for the end - and it is very much worth the wait.

There may not be much action on the way to the climax, but what we do get are some great character interactions and brilliant dialogue. The film is packed with memorable, quotable lines. Some make me laugh, others shake me to the core. There are lines spoken by these characters I'll never forget. Like Rhodes: "I'm runnin' this monkey farm now, Frankenstein, and I wanna know what the f--- you're doin' with my time!" Like Logan, speaking about the zombies: "They can be tricked into being good little girls and boys, the same way we were tricked into it - a promise of some reward to come." John: "You know, that's the trouble with the world, Sarah darling. People got different ideas concerning what they want out of life."

And there's "Choke on 'em."

My favorite scene in the movie is a quiet moment between Sarah and John in which he delivers a monologue about how the human race can move forward in this post-apocalyptic world. Start over, start fresh, and teach the new generations of children to never dig up the records of the old world that ran itself into the ground. John also offers an explanation for why the dead rose in the first place: humans are being punished by the creator, for any number of reasons. The lines so well delivered by Terry Alexander in this scene give me goosebumps every time.

The cast of Day of the Dead does a fantastic job across the board, from Pilato as Rhodes, Sherman as Bub, and Liberty as our mad scientist Logan, to Alexander with his fake Jamaican accent, Conroy as the deeply likeable Bill, and Cardille as Sarah, who is really one of the best heroines the horror genre has ever had to offer. She's a tough character, but also one with a lot of depth. She's strong enough to power through whatever has to be done, even if that's cutting off the arm of a man who has been bitten by a zombie in a desperate attempt to save his life... and then she can show her true emotion after, breaking down in tears. Surrounded by madness, she perseveres.

The soldiers make memorable impressions in their own way. You'll never forget some of these jerks.

Day of the Dead absolutely deserves its new reputation of being a classic, because it is a wonderful film. Like Night and Dawn, it's truly one of the best horror movies ever made. Due to the underground setting and dark, dirty nature of the film, Romero used to refer to fans of Day as "trolls". For a long time, Day-loving trolls were a rare breed. But they've been multiplying over time, and it really warms my heart to see how many are out there now.

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