Girl Meets Context: We’ve declared December Zombie Month in reaction to the Christmas season and its concomitant resurrecting god-figure. We continue with the final film in George A. Romero’s original zombie trilogy. The movie is set in an underground bunker in the midst of the zombie apocalypse, where a band of military personnel and scientists clash over whether a “cure” to the zombie plague can be discovered. The film’s protagonist is Sarah (Lori Cardille), a researcher whose work is threatened when the military leader of the base is killed and replaced by an unstable despot named Rhodes (Joseph Pilato). As the tensions between Rhodes’ military and the civilians increases, the base’s leading scientist, Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty), has begun conducting strange and warped experiments with the bodies of dead soldiers. However, he has made some breakthroughs, most notably in the form of a docile zombie he has named Bub (Sherman Howard), who shows signs of higher reasoning. But tensions among the group continue to rise until a bloody climax in which the zombie hoards are released into the underground bunker to spread mayhem. Considered the weakest of Romero’s trilogy, the movie is nonetheless revered for its inventive and over-the-top gore setpieces. It was overshadowed at the box office by the much more successful The Return of the Living Dead (1985) – in fact, there was a legal battle between the companies involved in the competing films. Nonetheless, Day of the Dead has become a beloved – if controversial – cult film. Kristine and I sat down to discuss the film. If you haven’t seen Day of the Dead, our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.
Sean: I’d like to open in an unusual way – by quoting from an earlier discussion we had about the similarities between Ridley Scott’s Alien and George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Back then, I said the following:
That both of these “survival thrillers” end with an ellipsis rather than a period feels significant to me. Not to put to fine a point on it, but it sort of makes sense that at the end of the 1970s – a decade of great economic and political uncertainty in the U.S. – audiences would respond to these kind of endings. Little did they know that the Reagan era was right around the corner, and that the boom economy of the 1980s (and the creation of the yuppie) was coming. Both of these movies have Reagan-era sequels: James Cameron made Aliens in 1986 and Romero released his third zombie film, Day of the Dead, in 1985. When the time is right, it’ll be very interesting to watch those movies and think about how differently they continue these stories from that mid-‘80s perspective.
Well, that time is here. So, if possible, I’d like to frame Day of the Dead both as an artifact of Reagan’s America and the mid-1980s and an example of what comes after the ellipsis. Dawn of the Dead ends on an uncertain, but possibly optimistic, note. We believe that Peter and Fran might find safe harbor somewhere. But here’s Day of the Dead to essentially tell us, ‘Well, even if they did, it would be a living hell.’ I’m no Romero-ologist by any stretch, but I’d be curious to know if he ever even considered putting Fran and Peter into the Sarah/John slots in this movie. But I don’t want to get side-tracked by that. This is a boom-economy zombie film, not a Watergate and recession-era zombie film. Do you notice the difference?
Kristine: Well, I want to say right off the bat that of Romero’s trilogy, Day of the Dead is my least favorite by a fairly strong margin. I found it to be quite boring and, if anything, overburdened by political allegory rather than just telling an interesting story about compelling characters, something that both Dawn and Night managed to do. Are you shocked?
Kristine: I want to know how you know how I am going to feel! Or is mine a commonly-held opinion?
Sean: It’s relatively common. Day is pretty much considered the least successful of the original three movies, even though it still beloved. Like, for example, it has an 82% on Rotten Tomatoes, compared to Dawn’s 95% and Night’s 96%.
Kristine: For me, it is definitely not as successful as the first two movies.
Sean: The word is that Romero’s original script for Day of the Dead was a massive epic that was going to really be his masterpiece. He’s described it as “the Gone With the Wind of zombie movies.” But then he clashed with the studio over ratings – he was told that if he insisted on filming gore that would guarantee the movie an unrated (or “X”) release, the studio was going to slash the budget in half. So he had the option of filming his original script with very little gore/violence, or making it gory for half the money. And he chose the latter, so he had to completely re-write the script to accommodate the lower budget.
Kristine: So, the final product is not his original vision for the movie?
Sean: No, it’s not his original vision. But Romero says that Day of the Dead is his favorite of the original trilogy, despite the creative concessions he was forced to make. So he clearly loves the finished product and stands by it, regardless of the production woes.
Kristine: I mean, that sucks about the studio slashing his budget, but shouldn’t an innovative filmmaker be able to make it work even with less money?
Sean: But I just said he still stands by the film regardless! And, for that matter, so do I. I love this movie.
Sean: Are you shocked?
Kristine: I figured you were a fan. But I didn’t guess that you would j’adore it. Though you can love it and it can still be the weakest of the three movies, correct? Or do you rank it above Dawn?
Kristine: Whoa. Now I am shocked.
Sean: But I love Dawn. Don’t get me wrong. I love all the movies for different reasons. And I’ve watched Dawn literally hundreds of times, and I’ve only watched Day about a dozen times, so that might be skewing my answer.
Kristine: Make like Madonna and justify your love. Right now!
Sean: Can’t you guess? 25 minutes straight of the best fucking bloody zombie gutmunching mayhem ever put to screen! Those gore effects in the finale? Unbeatable. Unstoppable. And of course… Bub! Those are the two big things, but there’s other points I could make. But I love those final gore setpieces and the character of Bub.
Kristine: I was pretty bored and disengaged with the movie until the Bub/Logan/razor/Walkman scenes.
Sean: I love how Bub stands at this crossroads between the body and all of its lower functions (represented by the razor and the toothbrush) and the intellect and its higher functions, like culture and learning (represented by the book – ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King, I might point out, which is a story about a community being overrun by an invading, alien force – and the music).
Kristine: I was surprised how emotionally moving I found the Bub scenes to be. I actually feel a little embarrassed and naive, since it is so over the top and unapologetically manipulative in the most obvious way. But still. Bub 4-eva!
Sean: Bub is the man. And I just want to point out the gay camp that is inherent to “Hello, Aunt Alicia.”
Sean: He is my favorite single character in any of Romero’s movies. And once Miguel (the flaming queen – no way he and Sarah were actually ever knocking boots) lets in the zombies, Romero goes into full-on cinema mode, and the most cinematic thing in the movie is Bub with the handgun, stalking the halls and firing off shots. So fucking great. Such pure fucking cinema.
Kristine: Ha! Yeah, the Sarah/Miguel thing was so bogus. The way he kept lisping at her, “You think you’re so strong, don’t you? Well, so fucking what!” I hated that. My favorite gore scene was near the beginning when Sarah goes to confront Logan about his experiments and the zombie on the operating table turns on his side and his guts SLOP SLOP SLOP on the floor. Disgusting.
Sean: Hahah! I mean, the deaths in the finale? With all the zombies tearing the bodies of the soldiers apart? For me, those are the primal zombie scenes. The best that have ever been put to screen. They perfectly capture the horror of the horde, the mob… Just with all their arms coming for you, ripping you apart… Were you disgusted/amazed by those moments?
Kristine: I was entertained. I wasn’t wowed like you. I wish I had been. I just couldn’t engage with this movie. I didn’t care about any of the characters, other than Bub, of course. Sarah left me cold. Couldn’t care less about Miguel. Rhodes was too cartoonishly villainous, and Logan was utterly ridic. So that leaves…uh…the offensive stereotype that is John the Jamaican mon who just wants to loaf in the sun on some island? Who is just like “Let’s get all juiced up, mon!”? I was dying.
Sean: I can’t say you’re wrong about any of that. The pacing of this movie is weird. I described it to my boyfriend as “a series of Socratic dialogues followed by 25 minutes of bloody zombie mayhem.” It’s a very strange animal, this movie. It’s literally a series of soliloquies for the first hour. And thus, it is sort of dramatically inert.
Sean: I mean, where you moved at all by any of the themes/ideas the movie is trying to explore? This is the most “literate” and thematically ambitious of Romero’s trilogy.
Kristine: Sorry, but I was pretty unmoved. I guess it’s interesting that each one of Romero’s zombie films does seem to be somehow embody the era it was made in, to connect back to how you opened the discussion. I definitely agree with you that this movie is very 1980s and very much a product of Reagan’s America. Just as Dawn of the Dead was quintessentially 1970s and how Night of the Living Dead is this amazing cultural document of the 1960s. But I feel like Day of the Dead is “big” in its ideas and its approach to the subject matter, but ultimately soulless. It is punctuated with moments of extreme sentimentality, which are a big absurd, but also very 1980s. I generally think of the ‘80s as being very rich fodder for social commentary. I don’t think Day of the Dead really ever articulated a cogent social critique, which feels like a gigantic missed opportunity. Sarah’s situation, for example. Can you imagine being the only woman in this godforsaken bunker with zombies on the outside and tyrannical military pigs on the inside? And the film “addresses” that – but in the most brusque and obvious way, with the soldiers screaming sexually-charged insults at her (“She don’t have to jerk off like the rest of us Captain. She got herself an honest-to-God dick to get off on, eh?”). Furthermore, Sarah is such a disappointing nothing of a character. I feel like she is supposed to be this hard-nosed Ellen Ripley type, and then when she breaks down in John’s arms we realize she has this soft side… But just no. It was so clumsily done and I didn’t care a whit about her. What about you?
Sean: I mean, I definitely don’t care about any of the characters outside of Bub. However, I’m not sure we’re supposed to care. If we’re supposed to care, the movie fails on that account. But the characters are all archetypal, all meant to represent ideas more than be three-dimensional human beings. And I’m okay with that. I was sort of into how the movie’s big thematic interest is in the passage of time and what time means, and also the age-old debate around the pursuit of science. But I was turned off because it seems like Romero is ultimately siding with John and his big speech about, ‘Let’s forget all of human history and human achievement and make babies and keep them ignorant.” I found that to be really paternalistic and disgusting and I hated it. In fact, this movie is just paternalistic across the board. If you think about its structure, it is just a series of men “lecturing” Sarah until a bunch of zombies eat everybody.
Kristine: Right, but I still can’t rally for Sarah. So, do you think Logan is evil? Or are pure scientists like him immune from moral judgments about their actions and methods?
Sean: I mean, I think he’s supposed to represent the scientist whose motives are good and whose theories are good, but its how they go about their business that is wrong and shocking. We’re supposed to love Logan, right? Because he’s the only person to effectively stand up to Rhodes.
Kristine: I don’t know.
Sean: I think so.
Kristine: I wish Romero had showed us Rhodes devolving into an evil psycho. He just… is one. OMG, how disgusting was Rickles, the sidekick army henchman with the revolting chortle?
Sean: Yes and his death scene was the best because of that mad high-pitched cackle. And his eyeball getting exposed after the zombies rip the flesh away from his face? Pure poetry.
Kristine: Hee hee.
Sean: I agree that Rhodes is a ridic, moustache-twirling villain. I mean, Romero doesn’t give us a nuanced portrait of the Military Industrial Complex. They’re just all rapey, racist thugs. I guess some of the background guys seem content to just grow weed and chillax, but the main army guys are all monsters. No shading. When Steele is bragging about the size of his dick? “Fuckin’ A, biggest piece of meat in the cave.” And then Rickles is like, “It means you’re a caveman, asshole. You’re a fucking throwback. You’ve been spending too much time underground. It’s okay, Steele, throwbacks all got big dicks.” I mean, dumb.
Kristine: Agreed. Gross. I have already complained how I didn’t feel like the social commentary was nuanced enough, and it was hard to take seriously. My other major complaint is that in comparison to the other two movies, this one had a real lack of humor, black or otherwise. I mean, the only “funny” parts were the extreme gore scenes and, I guess, the military guys spewing piggish insults? It was just crass and not nearly as smart as the previous two films, I felt.
Sean: I agree, though I would say that Logan is our “comic relief character.” But I feel like the reason for the lack of humor is because of the movie’s thematic interest in what the world is like when we’ve lost the war – when there’s a 400,000:1 zombie-to-human ratio. So there’s supposed to be a feeling of despair, which I think the movie does evoke effectively.
Kristine: I agree with that. But didn’t 28 Days Later share a lot of this movie’s themes and ideas? The military that is supposed to protect the survivors, but instead tyrannizes and abuses them. The tone of utter bleakness. Even the ethics of keeping the zombies/infected alive to study them. This may be sacrilege, but I really think 28 Days Later does a much better job at handling those themes. Well, except maybe the last one, but only because I love Bub.
Sean: Well, 28 Days Later definitely lifts its whole “army guyz are evilz” plot from this movie. And also so much of the aesthetic from the past two seasons of The Walking Dead are straight from this movie: the chain link fence around the compound, barely keeping out the hordes of undead, etc. And the general vibe of “all is lost.” In Night of the Living Dead, you get the sense that humans are containing the menace, all those hillbillies setting bonfires. In Dawn of the Dead, the zombie outbreak still feels like it is just beginning to unfold. But in this movie, like in The Walking Dead, it’s like, ‘Nope, we lost. Everything’s ruined. This is the world now.’ But the film’s basic interest in the role of the military vs. the role of science is very post-1970s Military Industrial Complex. The questions posed by the movie about the role of the military, the role of scientific inquiry, and the power dynamics within a society founded upon the strength and presence of the armed forces are very Reagan-era questions. I especially was thinking about the Cold War policies of the American government in Latin America throughout this movie. But I disagree with your basic claim about 28 Days Later. All that movie does it strip this story down to its Gothic roots and ramp up the homoeroticism of the deranged soldiers. (Gothic = the girls in those prom dresses running about the old mansion). Again, I think Day of the Dead is a bit more philosophically inclined. 28 Days Later is spectacle. Day of the Dead is inquiry. Granted, one is more entertaining than the other.
Kristine: Hmm, yeah, I agree with all that. I mean, if one of my complaints about Day is that the military dudes are cartoonishly evil, that goes quadruple for 28 Days Later. But at least in 28 Days Later I cared about the characters. And also, the score wasn’t annoying. This may seem very nitpicky, but I really hated Day of the Dead‘s fucking omnipresent, grating Atari-esque soundtrack, especially in the last quarter. I think it really affected my enjoyment of the movie, because it audibly sums up all the horrid things about the ‘80s.
Sean: Ha! I love that dated Italo-disco soundtrack. Well, I guess I have questions.
Sean: The opening scene where Sarah is dreaming that the hands all come out of the wall – did you jump?
Kristine: No. Well, maybe a tad. I did think it was cool-looking.
Sean: Classic jump scare. I think that might be the single most arresting image in any of the three films in this trilogy. What about the ending – does Sarah die and the island is “heaven”? Or do they actually escape?
Kristine: You’re going to be mad but… I didn’t care enough to think about it.
Sean: Well, well. So it’s like that. Care to think about it now? Or are you over it?
Kristine: I’m over the plot… But this discussion is making me wonder if my apathy proves that Romero made a successful film. If the viewer feels the bleakness and alienation that the world of the film also embodies, then maybe it’s a win?
Sean: Hmmm… I think he wanted us to reflect on his social critique, right? I mean when John gives his big speech and says, “We’re being punished by the creator. He visited a curse on us so we might get a look at what Hell was like. Maybe He wanted to see use blow ourselves up, put a big hole in the sky. Maybe He just wanted to show us He was still the boss man. Maybe He figured we was getting too big for our britches, trying to figure his shit out.” I feel like John is often a mouthpiece for Romero, but perhaps that’s misguided. Still, I hate John’s philosophy. Is that what Romero believes, do you think? That science is just mankind “getting too big for our britches” and thus we’re due for a cosmically justified comeuppance?
Kristine: I don’t think so. I mean, in almost all zombie/apocalypse movie some character gives a similar kind of speech about how this is the result of society’s hubris, right? That exact trope was referenced and parodied in the Dawn of the Dead remake with Ken Foree’s fire and brimstone evangelical sermon, right?
Kristine: What do you think Romero’s message is, overall, with the trilogy?
Sean: I think the “message” is clearest in Day of the Dead, which might make it the weakest artistically. Whereas the first two movies just tell the story of the crisis unfolding and focus on the reactions of the characters, Day of the Dead is all about ruminating on the crisis and speechifying about it. But I definitely think the message is encapsulated by John’s speech where he says, “All this fighting and record keeping? We ever going to give a shit?” and how inconsequential all the relics of human society are.
Kristine: Okay, I buy the argument about the record-keeping being part of Romero’s message, but I do not buy the stuff about being “punished” by a higher being. I think that stuff comes out of the character’s mouth and is meant to represent his personal philosophy, not the filmmaker’s. I think Romero’s overall message is more about how social constructs (like race, gender, class, etc.) are dumb and ultimately destructive. So, yeah, the situation is “our fault” but there is no puppeteer pulling the strings. It’s just us.
Sean: Now that we’re discussing this, I realize that I think it’s important to view the trilogy overall as anti-war and as a response to the climate of the Vietnam era. I mean, Tom Savini, who did all the effects for Dawn and Day is notoriously known as a Vietnam Vet who draws upon that carnage of warfare in his work. Do you think it’s possible to look at this trilogy as a series of allegories about war? I’m thinking specifically about the priest’s soliloquy in Dawn. Or to think about the movies as an overall aesthetic response to the Vietnam War and just the militarization and global corruptions of the post-1960s era?
Kristine: Yes, I think that’s actually a really compelling way to think about them.
Sean: Whenever Rhodes and his cronies kept referring to the zombies as “those mothers” and “bags of puss” and “fucking dirtbags,” I kept being like, Who is he talking about really? The unwashed masses? Or the enemy combatants? It reminded me a lot of how G.I.s in war movies talk. Like how the soldiers in Vietnam War movies talk about the non-combatant Vietnamese. Right? Like, the zombies in this movie are represented with more pathos than in either of the other films. I remember specifically there’s this moment when two zombies are chained by the soldiers to a wall and one of them like, curls her fists in frustration and howls in rage. We’re being asked to recognize their humanity.
Kristine: Yes, but the soldiers’ derogatory nicknames for the zombies also reminded me of how upper middle-class and upper-class Americans talked about G.I.s in the Vietnam era.
Sean: Well, right and it is so clear that part of Rhodes’ rage is about social class, especially when he says things like, “We’re going to get the hell out of here and leave you and your high-falutin’ asshole friends to rot in this stinking sewer.”
Kristine: Right. The conflict between the scientists and the military is not just an outcome of Logan being nuts and Rhodes being a prick. I actually thought his outrage at the desecration of the dead soldiers’ bodies was justified and true.
Sean: Yes, agreed. Logan is a monster. What do you think the movie’s obsession with time is all about? The opening dream with the calendar? Rhodes screaming, “I want to know what the fuck you’re doing with my time!”? All the debates about the weeks, months or years it might take to find a cure for the zombie plague? And of course, the naming scheme of the movies themselves tell us that time is of paramount importance (Night, Dawn, Day).
Kristine: I am not sure… Maybe Romero’s saying that time is this completely artificial social construct and trying to hold on to it is utterly meaningless in this fallen world? Holding on to a notion that there will be an end or that you will have a life where the passage of time matters?
Sean: I am down with that. I was thinking about how the calendar in that opening sequence is turned to the month of October, which I think most viewers would consider significant because that’s the month in which Halloween falls, but I actually think the significance of that is that October was traditionally a time of harvest. It’s a link back to an agricultural past. I kind of feel like that calendar is about modes of civilization, about the progression of human history, something the zombie apocalypse has brought to a halt – which is symbolically represented by all the red exes covering most of the days on the calendar. Remember how the rapey piggish soldiers pride themselves on being “cavemen” and “throwbacks”? This movie is clearly about all the different modes of civilization over time, about mankind’s “progression” and questioning the very notion of culture and civility.
Kristine: I definitely agree. Especially with Logan’s discoveries about how the zombies are motivated by the R-complex and all his talk of “deep dark primordial instinct.” I do see Romero posing some questions here about what makes us human, what makes us ‘civilized,’ and what the human animal really even is, at the end of the day.
Sean: But if time is meaningless in the zombie apocalypse, then that makes Sarah even more confused, right? Someone who just doesn’t get it? Because her final act in the movie is to restart the calendar, to start drawing in the days of November. She hasn’t “let go” and accepted the new paradigm.
Kristine: Possibly, especially if that ending is “real” and not a projection of heaven/paradise after death.
Sean: You know the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that they were eaten at the helicopter and that the final images are meant to be ironic. Projections of a false paradise that never will be, or never was.
Kristine: I’m not so sure. But if the ending is “real” and Sarah is restarting the calendar, that could also be seen as her rejecting John’s philosophy, right? The one you object to about forgetting all of mankind’s past history and having babies? She is going to carry on the traditions of our civilization, starting just with this basic marking of time.
Sean: See here’s where I think Romero’s “message” might be about what we value in our culture, and how the zombie epidemic becomes a laboratory in which to examine how petty most of our values and interests truly are once the primal terror of the fight for survival returns. This might be too glib, but isn’t his point just, “Appreciate life”? “Appreciate the little time we’re given”?
Kristine: No, I think that may be right on. Especially because Romero strikes me as a humanist, ultimately, and I think he would want to shake the masses out of their “slumber” in order to really see the world around them. What better way to do that then to ask us to participate in this elaborate fantasy where our modern world is lost?
Sean: But I don’t like the accompanying subtext of, “Don’t waste that precious time on science because God is Beautiful Mystery so stay ignorant and have babies.” Ew. And that’s the ending of the movie! The three of them on an island preparing their lapsarian ignorance!
Kristine: But again, doesn’t that make Sarah’s calendar-making a really important gesture? She’s refusing to forget.
Sean: Right. I forgot you made that point. I buy that, actually. Especially because one of Sarah’s main roles in the movie is to represent order and procedure, while Logan represents “artistic genius” (who is making genuine discoveries but at the cost of any sense of ethics) and Rhodes represents tyranny. The way she’s all about keeping records and following procedure, yelling, “You’ve got to write them up – it’s essential!” at the soldiers in the beginning.
Kristine: You know, I like Romero and I think he breaks a lot of new ground but has he ever had a good female character in one of his movies?
Sean: Haha! No. His movies are really paternalistic. He’s a Gentle Good Daddy. And the movie references Stephen King. He and Romero are pals in real life, and King is another Benevolent Daddy.
Kristine: Ugh. Has there ever been a video or pinball game based on this trilogy? A Dawn of the Dead one would be cool, especially in the mall.
Sean: I’m sure that must exist. Well, you’ve completed the trilogy. You’re now a zombie completist.
Kristine: Wheee! Didn’t you say Day has a remake and it is godawful?
Sean: Yes, it does and it is excrement. Direct-to-DVD shite.
Kristine: Who’s in the cast?
Sean: Ving Rhames plays Rhodes and Sarah is played by… Mena Suvari.
Kristine: Oh Christ.
Sean: Also, Nick Cannon is in it.
Kristine: Haha! Enough said.
The Girl’s Rating: Quit being a tone-poem, start telling stories
The Freak’s Rating: Masterpiece of gore AND Flawed but essential AND This movie either has too many ideas or not enough – I don’t know which and I am too depressed to figure it out