Romero: An Appreciation Part 03 – Day of the Dead

The 1980’s could easily been seen as the golden age of modern horror, its true that a great many of the genres classic’s came from the 70’s but in the 80’s the horror movie gained an unprecedented popularity as a popular genre. However the 80’s style of these movies did change significantly, editing became quicker and emphasis centred on the visceral rather than on the suspense that earlier movies exhibited. Gone were the long languishing shots and one shot scenes favouring of a much more choppy style. Many horror movies in particular leaned on this attempt to favour the youth culture.

Predictably Romero did not.

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Day of the Dead bears a great deal of its quality on Romero’s old fashioned style of film making and intense focus on the characters. Though many viewers say that Day lacks the iconic figures in the earlier “Dead” films it certainly has more than its fair share of well constructed characters; and some these characters take a confident step into a much broader psychological world than did the earlier ones in the series.

Doctor Logan, Day of the Dead’s take on Dr Frankenstein, is easily one of the most interesting characters in all the “Dead” films. Logan is deeply disturbed and we are aware of this from our very first encounter with the man, but this does not erode our certainty that he is a genius and that his research holds many keys to this horrific world. In particular his relationship with his star pupil Bub raises many questions that are explored but never eclipsed in the later movies in the series.

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Bub, excellently played by Sherman Howard (who can be seen in many episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and is a voice actor in many animated series), has so far not been surpassed in any zombie movie. His performance, conceived of by the actor with a generous amount of freedom from Romero, perfectly illustrates the blossoming intelligence that we later come to assume many of the dead are capable of exhibiting. He manages a simultaneous humour along with a constant undercurrent of menace that unfolds with a carefully balanced construction. We are never sure how much Bub understands his actions or whether much of what he does is merely remembered behaviour.

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There are no bad characters in Day, perhaps this is why there are no stand out performances other than the two previously mentioned, again suggesting that this may be a fault that is more a case of familiarity breeding contempt than any genuine error. In Day we clearly see the typical “Dead” movie archetypes once again, misunderstood Afro-American hero, strong female, fractured male and the everyman; but once again it’s the subtext we should be looking at. As with Dawn (and in some respects Night) the notion of “family” is once again explored, but this time Romero focuses on abusive and fractured relationships.

Viewers who have read Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein are at an advantage here as Romero’s themes are much more subtle here than in the previous movies in the series. The references made comparing Logan with Dr Frankenstein are not just the popular culture references a viewer may assume. Just like the novel Frankenstein Day’s primary concerns are the mistreatment of you young and the abuse of the vulnerable.

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The heroine of the movie, Sarah, and her relationship with Miguel is a case in point. Miguel is suffering a nervous breakdown, completely understandable under the circumstances, but it becomes clear to the audience that it isn’t just Rhodes and his soldiers who are to blame for this, Sarah is too. Sarah emasculates Miguel, mothers him and through this misguided attempt to protect him weakens him in everyone’s view, and through this Miguel’s own self esteem is shattered. Throughout the film Miguel is rarely abused by his colleagues, it could be even said that a certain unspoken sympathy remains (Steele’s repeated “have you got it?” in one climactic scene seems almost tender for the character), but the soldiers attack Sarah constantly, which raises the viewer to question who they have the most contempt for; Miguel, a colleague who they despise for his weakness, or the woman who they see as be instrumental in it.

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However the central theme is most clearly seen in Dr Logan himself, and his relationship with Bub. It’s quickly clear that Logan is disturbed, it’s equally clear that whatever broke this mans sanity happened long before the dead started to walk. Logan was abused as a child, beaten and emotionally scarred from his parent’s achievements and their need for him to succeed. His repeated insistence that “reward is the key” speaks volumes when we become aware that he his speaking of himself and not the dead he is trying to train; especially when we become aware that reward becomes torture when Logan’s pupils react poorly.

Ultimately this is all the undoing of the collection of characters, their rather safe and comfortable lives are not broken by outsiders, but by their abuses of each other. Miguel decides to commit suicide in one of the most horrific ways imaginable, perpetrating a hideous revenge on everyone in the process. Bub slips his restraints and finds his only “friend” killed by the one person who had shown him contempt and essentially avenges his friend.

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Out of all the characters in Day, the largest body of characters in a “Dead” film so far in the series, Bub is the only one who shows selflessness to others. He is the only character who has no agenda and seems to take any pleasure from his “life”; and as such his inclusion (and Sherman Howards portrayal of him) is integral not just to this movie but to all the movies in the canon of “Dead” films.

Putting theme and character aside, Day stands confidently on many other values. The make-up effects are quite possibly the best in all the “Dead” films to date, coupling the excellent editing with some sly sleight of hand from Tom Savini and his team Romero creates some set pieces that are genuinely jaw dropping. The movies cinematography is also some of Romero’s best work, using a style that seems a perfect cross between Night’s near-surrealistic approach and the comic book look of Dawn. Day manages a simultaneous realism with its look that completely outshines its rather meagre 3 million dollar budget.

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So it’s clear to see why, in many ways, Day is the most accomplished of the “Dead” movies. That is not to say that nothing is lacking, but what is lacking is very hard to ascertain, perhaps it has something to do with Dawn’s “epic” nature and people’s anticipation for Day, perhaps it’s Day’s much more thematically delicate approach to its subject matter. Mostly it seems that Day is a smaller movie than its predecessors, but what it lacks in breadth it more than makes up for with quality and so it could be easily argued that Day would be a fitting end to the “Dead” films.

There is another, less considered, option to Day’s lukewarm response on its release, and that is another release the same year of a movie similar in many ways to Romero’s movies.

The Return of the Living Dead was a movie scripted and directed by Dan O’Bannon, co-author of Alien and Dead & Buried that tells the story of a rise of walking dead in a small mid-western town. It was adapted from the novel of the same name that was written by John A. Russo the co-writer of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and written as a direct sequel to that movie.

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We will consider this movie on its own merits in another article, but for the moment consider the impact of this movie on Day. The “Dead” films have had a host of spin-off’s, unofficial sequels, and official sequels and through these movies we can follow definite threads. Even those experienced in these movies cannot clearly agree on their relevance to each other or their impact on future movies in the “Dead” canon, so it is clear that to a general audience these two movies released in the same year would confuse and potentially split its audience. Especially when its obvious that Return was made as a crowd pleasing piece of 80’s horror entertainment, rather than the analytical and considered approach that Romero prefers to take (incidentally a logical reasoning behind why Romero did not wish to make Return himself).

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It would take George A. Romero ten years to return to the “Dead” saga and in that time the world would change a great deal. Film-making fundamentals changed, digital effects would be introduced and film itself would nearly disappear from the process. Politics would change and the standing of the United States on the world stage would take a considerably beating and through all this Romero fans waited and anticipated what he would do with the next film.

Not even Day naysayers, of which there were many, would argue one point. “Day of the Dead” marked what was arguable the last of Romero’s “quality” movies in the series. Later entries would not plumb the depths that many viewers would maintain, but none would reach the heights of the first three in the series.

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