Day of the Dead (1985) — A grave misstep from George A. Romero

“They are us.”

Justin’s rating: March on, you magnificent zombie horde!

Justin’s review: As much as I have the potential to be an enormous fanboy at times, the cynic in me realizes that they’re one of three peer pressure groups when it comes to promoting — or rebelling against — a film. You have your critics groups (“What did a majority of film critics think about this one…?”), your popular groups (“What did most people I’ve heard talking about this think of the movie?”) and your fanboys (“I bow to the mass of internet wisdom”), all of whom try their hardest to influence you into liking or not liking a product. If you hate a movie that film critics like, then they get to feel all elitist; if you go against the popular flow, you’re singled out at parties with weird and sympathetic looks; and if you dare to defy the fanboys (and fangirls), then as of tomorrow morning you will have no credit cards, no social security number, and owe a large debt to EB Games.

I hope you know that while we here at Mutant reviewers may be for or against movies and try to sway you to our cause, we’re always cool with what you eventually decide on your own. And it’s “okay” to say “no” to George A. Romero, boys and girls, even when the fanboys threaten you with geekily harm in so doing.

I begin this review (two paragraphs too late) with a word of sincere recognition. No matter what follows, Romero has never to worry about a place at my dinner table for his pioneering the field of cinematic walking corpses. Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead are genuine, 100% red-blooded American classics, no doubt about it. It’s just that he should’ve taken his winnings before the house won it all back.

It’s bad enough that fans of his films blinded themselves with their enthusiasm, promoting Romero to the Holy Pope of Horror, infallible for his entire body of work. He could spit on a tuna sandwich and send it parcel post to Hollywood, and I guarantee you there’d be 10 fan sites for that sandwich within a week. What’s worse is that Romero started believing all of his own hype, and went on to stumble through Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead, proclaiming them the Best Things Ever, while all sorts of other zombie upstarts frankly stole the show by doing the genre one better. It amazes me that he considers Day of the Dead his best work — and does not amaze me one whit that thousands of Romero fans give themselves embolisms trying to force themselves to like this movie.

While he does zombies good (thanks to the help of Ted Savini), Romero does humans horribly. Alas, Day of the Dead suffered from a severe lack of budget and an overdose of actors talking in stale, boring rooms. All fields from the school of bad acting report in: There’s the overacting insane military commander, the talky mad scientist, the G.I. brute, and a few token characters. As the budget covered only ten or fifteen minutes worth of special effects gore, the rest of the film by necessity had to be padded with people hunkering down to talk zombie philosophy and basically throw blatant pity parties for themselves.

After the events of Dawn, it seems as if all of the country (if not the world) is completely overrun with zombies. Isolated from everything except a sense of irony, a group of scientists, civilians and military folk hunker down in a nondescript bunker to perform experiments on the undead, and wait for the inevitable zombie massacre. Everyone is either shrill, insane or drugged, and you can sense that even the zombies sort of wished to give this place a pass and just go on to Miami Beach and get some rays.

In this drab, lifeless place, I’m sure many a-metaphor is happening, but so is Justin’s growing boredom with Romero’s dilly-dallying. He fails to give us characters to connect with and get behind, he shoots 95% of his film in what could graciously be called an underground college science building, and he sucks so much hope out of the film that after a while the universe implodes from the vacuum.

So make up your own mind, but hopefully you’ll remember that Justin said it’s “okay” to stand defiant against the fanboys, and call a dud a dud when you see one.

Kyle’s rating: Give it to them right between the eyes

Kyle’s review: When I started perusing the backlogs of Mutant reviews for something I could add my incoherent ramblings to, I saw Day of the Dead and knew my time was at hand. Over the holidays, one random night, I watched a bunch of no appropriate-for-the-season horror films, and one of them was Day of the Dead. Finally, that is: I had always put off watching it because of random and strange things I had heard about it. A self-aware zombie capable of communicating and feeling feelings? Absolutely no likeable characters? A fairly ridiculous conceit that served only to put scientists at odds with the military while simultaneously positing the remnants of humanity against a world of zombies? All without any music by The Doors? Blasphemy!

Unfortunately, I also anticipated that my review would be a breath of fresh air. Although I mean no disrespect to any of my fellow Mutants, past or present, my initial knee-jerk expectation was that any existing Day review would be largely positive; parroting the usual take on George Romero that his social commentary and willingness to allow Tom Savini’s gore magic to shine made his films pretty much criticism-proof, since anything negative would be immediately written off as “not getting it” and said negative critic being a “poopyhead.”

But why do I ever doubt my Mutants? Justin is absolutely right in his review above mine: This movie isn’t exactly proof that emperor Romero has no clothes (eek!) but it isn’t bulletproof. It isn’t logic-proof either: while watching there were numerous instances I just sort of shook my head at stuff that was either completely wrong or completely ridiculous, yet obviously necessary for the ‘sanctity’ of the plot. When characters have to make completely illogical decisions solely for the purposes of moving the story forward, or over-the-top hammy actors damage the credibility of their characters (although I would like to see any of the main military characters’ portrayers in an off-Sunset performance of Hamlet), it is generally a sign that the movie they are in is a bad movie.

Day of the Dead is a bad movie.

I wonder if Justin was going out on a limb when he wrote his initial review. I’m writing this having suffering through the execrable Land of the Dead and hearing enough about the upcoming Diary of the Dead that it seems fairly inescapable that George Romero has “lost” “it.” There will always be his most staunch defenders who remain on the sinking ship until the oxygen runs out, and that’s kind of how it should be. If not for them, it would be quite easy to discard Romero to the void, and as Justin argues: His early work (though somewhat dated and heavy-handed in retrospect, but I digress) remains valid and worthy of continued praise and attention.

But don’t go too easy on him. Judging by his most recent works that I have seen (Day and Land) I don’t think Romero gets out into the world too much, because his human characters ring completely false. Do people actually interact like this? Would personality nuance and compromise completely abandon a group of ostensibly ‘safe’ survivors just so they could (presumably unconsciously) act out a modern-day morality tale? These questions are, I would contend, much more interesting and amusing to think about than what is actually occurring on the screen whenever Day of the Dead is playing.

But should you see it if you haven’t already? I urge you to, albeit not out of any kind of malicious “see how lame George Romero can be and change your ways” desire on my part. It is, for better or worse, a part of one creator’s seminal body of zombie work, and there will probably some piece, however tiny, of “ah! That makes sense!” enjoyment you will get out of Day. If it were completely heinous I would tell you to avoid it: Day suffers by comparison to Romero’s earlier work but there is at least a sense that had he reined it in a little, or had a little more talent in his cast or one more revision on his script, it might have grappled for greatness. Instead, it is a subpar film that will always hover at the edges of the big party as the “plus one” of George Romero, but will not (and should not) receive any further honors as a worthy film. If you dig zombies, you’re obligated to see it, really. If you don’t, Juno is such a great movie! Stop, drop, and roll yourself to it right now!

Didja notice?

  • The opening scare… creepy!
  • “The Dead Walk” newspaper article
  • Nifty zombie designs
  • This lady is crabby… you would be too if you were the last woman left alive
  • When in doubt, sling some racial slurs around
  • Zombie clown!
  • The book Dr. Logan gives to Bub is Stephen King’s “Salem’s Lot.”
  • Romero is a zombie pushing a cart in the foreground during the final zombie feast, seen from the waist down and identified by his trademark plaid scarf wrapped around his waist.

4 comments

  1. Man, I love Day of The Dead. The effects are so much better and I really loved how it implanted the idea that the zombies were the “new” dominant species. It’s kind of awesome how the zombies represent our toils with disease, plague, hunger, war and death are defeated by becoming… the walking dead and I feel Day of The Dead pulls this off.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s