Review by Michael L
Original Artwork by Kaila Bell
Of all the Romero zombie flicks, I think the one I am most endeared to is Day of the Dead.
Now this is a decisive matter, akin to which James Bond is your favorite, and while we all know there’s only one right answer (welcome to the rock!), the variants are of interest.
If you say Night of the Living Dead is your favorite, chances are you like your horror straight. No lime, no salt, no chaser, please. I like my coffee black, just like my metal.
If, on the other hand, you say Dawn of the Dead is your favorite, it’s because you are 95% of the human population. You like your zombies better when they’re taking pies to the face; you enjoy it when your heroes survive; and you’ve been to a shopping mall (hoorumph!).
But if, on the other, other hand, you say Day of the Dead is your favorite, you are most likely a cold, lonely person, cynical to the bone, who dreads the end of the world and occasionally enjoys reggae.
A distinction is important: I did not say Day of the Dead is my favorite. But it is the one that draws me back, again and again.
Maybe it’s because, after a certain point, the charms of the original, now public domain Night become wallpaper charms. You can only bump into it a certain number of times in those HORROR CLASSICS bundle packs of DVDs (you know the one’s I’m talking about…I think), before it has an effect similar to that of Andy Warhol’s soup can.
That had a point when it was first printed, I imagine; but now I just see a can of soup. Does that make any sense? I own Night of the Living Dead more times on DVD than any other movie, and it’s sort of by accident: I bought one copy, got another one free in the mail, and have at least two or three more floating around because it always comes as the bottom half of a double bill to some other relatively obscure 1950s chiller.
So, don’t get me wrong, I *love* that movie. It’s just, it’s more of a mood piece at this point, a party favor: it’s buried in the background of the White Zombie album La Sexcorcisto, and Michael Myers stumbles on a family watching it in Halloween 2. It’s a movie in a movie, a soundtrack in a soundtrack; it’s become part of the air we breath (or the air I breath, at least).
When masturbation’s lost it’s fun, you’re fucking lazy…you know?
Now Dawn of the Dead is more fun. It’s more cheery, larger in scope, rich in character, ripe with satire. It’s the Star Wars of horror films, really, and an understandable pick for any line up of ones top five horror films. It’s a genre favorite, safe and special.
It isn’t really; it’s a wonderful film, and you really need to see it if you haven’t. But like Night, I’ve seen it too much. You’ve seen it too much. When I say “zombie”, you say “mall”. That movie cut to the bone when it first came out; it’s message may have been lost in the years since, though. I probably bought my copy of Dawn of the Dead at a mall: is that an epic fail on my part?
But maybe the messages in the Romero films aren’t meant to be acted upon. Maybe they’re more concerned with capturing a truth…
At which point I submit that none of his films contains a greater truth than Day of the Dead. That truth, quite simply, is that we are all going to die. Easy, breezy, pumpkin squeezy.
There’s no sugar coating it. It’s an icy, chilling, deeply upsetting fact and, to its credit, Day of the Dead lives with it. It internalizes it; fatalism, depressing as it is, is part of Day of the Dead‘s vernacular.
Moreover, Day of the Dead posits that our eventual destruction is our own damn fault; that maybe you can’t continue to sap the world of resources before a finite world collapses. That, true to Newtonian physics, maybe you cannot continually live in excess, before experiencing an equal and opposite reaction: the sudden descent into nothingness. Bleak, blang, black.
So why am I continually drawn to this one?
Honestly, I find Day of the Dead strangely reassuring.
It’s a movie unconcerned with living forever; it’s just about living a little bit longer. Maybe a little better.
It also speaks to our ever-present end-of-the-world, apocalypse fears. In Romero’s previous films, the end of the world was debatable; retaining control of western civilization was still a possibility (albeit, an incredibly grim one).
Not in Day of the Dead. It’s the end of the world, sister. And I think the peculiar pleasure of the film is witnessing our main group of characters learning to deal with that. To just let go (in the immortal words of one Tyler Durdan), and to realize that, perhaps, for all of our technological progress and modernity, maybe we just weren’t that damn important to begin with.
It’s downright populist: no matter who you are, you can’t avoid this. It’s spread the world over; moreover, your two options are presented in very stark terms. Either you die and become a zombie, or you die and you stay dead.
To position the latter option as something of a blessing makes the whole affair of dying almost cathartic. As Bela Lugosi’s Dracula put it in 1931, “there are far worse things awaiting man than death.”
By essentially trivializing every aspect by which we judge the value of our lives and our civilization, Day of the Dead champions a certain, hitherto unheralded aspect of western life: the living part.
So that’s special.
Having said all that, this movie is bleak, bleak, bleak, bleak, bleak. It’s clearly of the same decade that spawned the endless, cold, desolate labyrinth of the Hellraiser films. And it’s bubbling with social ideas, each clamoring for oxygen under the oppressive, bleak blanket aesthetic.
When they escape, it’s wonderful and exciting and, in a way, each social point is facilitated by the apocalyptic cum-drudgery of it all: why, of course the sexes were equal! Too bad, for all of it, we’re just going to die.
And speaking of death…enter Mr. Tom Savini, the uncanny! In my opinion, the makeup effects in this film are rivaled only by Rick Baker’s work in The Thing.
We’ve got guts unrolling, decapitated heads screaming, internal organs slopping, jaws cracking open, vocal cords ripped out, necks chewed through, fingers chomped off, etc, etc.
So it’s a dead man’s party.
And who could ask for more?
4 stars out of 5
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