In this regard, I’m talking about the treatment of the actual zombie players, you see. Instead of presenting the usual carbon copy of the lumbering walkers vs. the rabid animal variety, what are they actually doing with the dead? Are we, the audience, going to spend yet another entry of running and hiding from them, or are these still living and breathing characters actually going to do anything with these sufferers? Simply following the typical and preferred Hollywood formula of ‘zombies on a train’ or ‘zombies on a plane’ isn’t quite enough for this old soul. Call me old-fashioned, if you will, but I do like to see something different every now and then.
For example, AMC’s recent The Walking Dead spin-off – Tales Of The Walking Dead – had what I felt was a single good entry in an otherwise tepid six-episode run: it’s fourth installment – titled “Amy / Dr. Everett” – spent some time with a scientist who was largely hell bent on treating these walkers like their own evolved species. He tracked and recorded their activities. He tried to make sense of their developing patterns. He suggested – like other of Earth’s indigenous creatures – they might be developed migration patterns and social class structures. Granted, Ahmadu Garba’s script never dealt all that deeply with the good doctor’s theorizing, but it was a somewhat refreshing change of pace for a franchise that’s largely left the dead for dead, treating them as little more than insects that needed extermination. After so much time in the limelight, perhaps even zombies grow dreary.
Truth be told, “Amy / Dr. Everett” harkened me back to the days of old when the original dead enthusiast himself – writer/director George A. Romero – started toying with many of the same notions about zombiehood in his Day Of The Dead (1985). Fans of the Romero library have in many cases kinda/sorta dismissed the film as one of the lesser entries in the auteur’s ongoing exploration of the afterlife; having streamed it recently on my DVR from an airing on the Turner Classic Movies channel, I’d beg to differ with its detractors. While imperfect, it still tried to inject its dead with a bit of life, and that’s never a bad thing.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the film’s IMDB.com citation:
“As the world is overrun by zombies, a small group of scientists and military personnel dwelling in an underground bunker in Florida must determine whether they should educate, eliminate or escape the undead horde.”
I think, minimally, that’s precisely where Romero’s Day Of The Dead positions mankind best: in its closing scenes, our three surviving principal players are shown soaking up the sun on an expansive beach. As a group, they’ve opted to pack up their troubles and leave it all behind. The race of men has proven itself unreliable on the mainland, so they’re leaving them alone and opting to live out the remainder of their days in isolation. It isn’t exactly surrender, but it also isn’t quite beginning again anew. It’s more of a draw: a narrative ceasefire in the history of our planet. In the meantime, they’ll eat all the fish they can, get some great tans, and not worry so much about working on their cardio.
That being the case, I don’t feel the need to critique so much the human players of Day Of The Dead, other than an obligatory remark or two about the onscreen talent.
Actress Lori Cardille makes for a capable lead here: her portrayal of Sarah – the sometimes scientist, sometimes action hero – never quite rises to the level of fame granted other fictional heroines of her era (i.e. The Terminator’s Sarah Connor or Aliens’ Ellen Ripley). She’s certainly given a scene or two to demonstrate the toughness of her moral resolve, but Romero’s script never quite gives her any standout performance showing she can go toe-to-toe with the soldiers or the lumbering dead, making her a bit too incapable of defending herself physically when the chips are down. Who knows? Romero is the product of a different generation; although he stops short of making her a full-blown damsel in distress, I’ll agree with anyone who claims she could’ve used a bit more moxie here and there.
Actor Richard Liberty fills in the shoes of Dead’s resident mad scientist. Dr. Logan is of the chatty variety of masterminds, using what some might dub as snobbish, flowery speech not necessarily meant to insult his intellectual inferiors so much as it is to reinforce his mastery of science. Willing to even talk his zombies to death, Logan waxes on whenever given the chance, and Liberty fills out narrative space nicely when the script might otherwise experience a lull in the action. Thankfully, the actor never quite wallows in his Frankenstein-level conceit, always appearing authentically fascinated with even the smallest discovery. Again, I can understand why – as a character – he might wear thin with some in the audience; I’m simply saying I found him effective though perhaps a bit overused in the film’s 100-minute run time.
Lastly, Joseph Pilato gets good screen mileage out of Romero’s most stock character. As representing the evil of both authority and government, his Captain Rhodes grows increasingly distressed with both the circumstances of his assignment and the level of respect (or lack thereof) he gets from the scientists. Though his character arc is probably even predicted by the resident zombies, it’s still easy to see Pilato could chew the scenery with the best of them, barking orders at those under his command all while losing just enough grip on control to be a greater threat than he ever was safeguard. Yes, yes, and yes: we know he’s destined to be zombie meat before the credits roll … but the actor capably earned his place on the table instead of ‘at’ it.
Perhaps it’s the significant absence of zombie menace throughout Day Of The Dead that both irked and continues to irk fandom today, but I’d argue its Frankenstein story might’ve been one of its undiagnosed strengths.
In the lab, Bub has shown small signs of recognition. Though he’s little more than a lab rat responding to stimuli, he’s still demonstrated some hidden understanding of telephones, razors, and books. He’s even somehow managed to calm the need for human flesh at least accepting it at the point of reward for good deeds, and it’s these meager accomplishments that fuel both Logan’s work and inevitable demise: like any closeted madman, he’s bound to resort to some very dark deeds in order to keep moving forward. Again, where this takes this Day might be a bit predictable, but I thought it handled quite nicely by all involved.
In fact, I’d be remiss if I failed to mention that actor Sherman Howard gives a pretty interesting performance as Bub. Never did I sense when looking into his eyes that he wasn’t still a card-carrying member of the flesh-eating clan, but he still manages to create a measure of curiosity in his work. You’re never quite sure – when Bub’s reaching for an object – is he going to grasp it or is he instead going to finally turn on Dr. Logan and chomp on the man’s extended finger. It never looked like he would … but would he? It’s that delicious ambiguity (a curious phrase, considered he’s a zombie) that brought something special to this third act … and it’s something I’ve rarely seen matched since.
Granted, some may dismiss what I find refreshing as small potatoes, especially given fandom’s demand that Horror films shouldn’t be so (damn) cerebral. Still, I disagree. I’ve always found the exploration of ideas much more inviting – much more captivating – and I find myself going back time-and-time-again to flicks that make me think about an idea because I’m drawn into the experience. Those who prefer shock frights and jump scares are bound to dismiss Day Of The Dead as a lesser chapter, but what can I say? I guess I like more to chew on that just blood and brains.
Day Of The Dead (1985) was produced by United Film Distribution Company and Laurel Entertainment Inc.
Franchise entries are, perhaps, one of the hardest sells in all of filmdom. Fans of the original are expected for the antes to be upped while newcomers to the property might wonder what all of the fuss is about. Day Of The Dead tries to balance those liabilities by mining the middleground as much as it can; and the end result appears to have somewhat disenfranchised both sides of the potential audience. So sue me for enjoying its ‘Dr. Frankenstein’ angle a bit more than most, but I found it interesting and original in just the right balance. If anything, I’d argue it could’ve used a bit less predictability in a few key places … but, then again, those brains weren’t going to eat themselves.