30 – Day of the Dead (1985)

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 That’s right, Bub! Say hello to your Aunt Alicia! Say, “Hello, Aunt Alicia!” “Hello!”

Hello!’ resourceful hard nut heroine Sarah calls down a deserted Florida street lined with drooping palm trees and abandoned cars. ‘Is there anybody there?’

Like its predecessor, Dawn of the Dead, George A Romero‘s Day of the Dead goes straight for the jugular, plunging us straight into a non-too distant future when the earth belongs to the zombies, and human beings are reduced to an embattled, threatened minority.In Day of the Dead, the zombies seem like a horde guided by some preternatural sense of duty, like a plague sent by a capricious God to wash away a mistaken creation. They move like sludge oozing through tunnels, spreading out into the underground compound where a group of survivors defend a tiny isle of (deeply flawed) society, a human inhumanity.

There is no glamor here in defending human civilization, and one of the shocking and disturbing insights of the film is that as much as we, in our progressive-utopian ideals, might want to dismantle society as it is currently constructed, we might find the resulting chaos brings about even more troubling forms of repressive fascism.

As the layers of civilization built up over the years are peeled back, we see a startling vision of misogyny, racism, and the barest desire for power and control. Intellectuals and the application of reason struggle for a voice, and the supreme authority of power witnesses the return of slavery, here in the form of zombies. As the mad scientist Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty) theorizes, we humans can domesticate the zombie and use him/her/it as a slave. And so Dr. Logan experiments with this line of thinking on a zombie he names Bub (Sherman Howard), who through training begins to display almost-human traits (such as a fondness for listening to music on his walkman). Romero’s characteristic ambiguity is key here: are the zombies becoming more like us, or are we losing our capacity to distinguish ourselves from them?

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Hiding out in a World War Two bunker is an isolated community of survivors, a handful of scientists and soldiers surrounded by hundreds of thousands of baying zombies. But this isn’t just a battle between the living and the dead: it’s military force vs scientific hubris, army bullyboys vs the eggheads – and the complete lack of cooperation between the two sides is creating a simmering cocktail of fear, tyranny and discontent that’s just waiting to blow up. The soldiers are supposed to be helping the scientists discover a cure for the terrible undead plague. But whilst they lose men left right and centre, the boffins appear to be making little headway. And when the army discover that top scientist Dr ‘Frankenstein’ Logan (Richard Liberty) is feeding dead soldiers to the ‘specimen’ zombies he’s experimenting on, it’s all the excuse they need to start shooting.

In early scenes showing the politics of this small group of human beings, there is a brutality to the disputes, a dangerous proximity of violence that could turn into action at any moment. Most horrifying is the way the prejudices of our own society, particularly misogyny and racism, reassert themselves without having missed a beat. The heroine of Day Sarah (Lori Cardille) is thoroughly modern, but she finds herself in a regressive society where her fellow human beings may pose more of a threat than the zombies do.

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As Logan points out, our veneer of civilisation is all that separates us from the beasts in the wild, who, like the hapless zombies, operate by instinct alone, the atavistic urge to attack their motivating force. Yet in Day of the Dead, the brutality and inhumanity we see all comes courtesy of the human beings. Surprise surprise, we quickly discover that the trigger happy soldiers are no better than beasts. Rather more unexpected, though, is the ambiguous figure of Logan: in his blood-soaked butcher’s overalls and gory latex gloves, he’s part gentle father figure, part Cronenbergian/Reanimator surgeon, prepared to go to any lengths to further his hideous experiments. With both sides so thoroughly unpleasant, who are we supposed to root for? The zombie hordes?

Day-of-the-Dead-1985-2Actually, until the final, truly nightmarish scenes, we barely see them. Instead we have Bub, Logan’s pet zombie, a truly tragic figure, more like a brain-damaged adult than a monster. If you’re going to root for anyone, I suggest you root for him. Oh, and watch out for his final moment of triumph – it’s possibly one of the most brilliantly conceived horror scenes I’ve ever witnessed.

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Filmed when the Cold War was still looking fairly frosty, Day of the Dead has a lot to say about the fragile nature of human civilisation and the very thin line that divides us from our enemies. Dark, uncompromising and forthright, this is a thought provoking film that makes its point forcefully -with a thick coating of blood and guts, of course.

As in the previous two films, Romero’s last two survivors are a non-romantic couple consisting of a white woman and a black man (who, in Night, both die but who, in Dawn and Day, survive), and this is certainly no coincidence. In the first two films, this coupling seemed like an act of subversion and a hint at the hybridity and cooperation that Romero sees as essential for the continuing development of human civilization, but in Day, it is also something of a pointed critique. Take a look at who these two people are who are running away and then take a look at who they are running away from (not only the zombies but also other humans).

My own personal opinion is Day, is the weakest of the three films, however again with Romero’s other films it plays a massively important part in the journey of the apocalyptic and zombie genre, and certainly deserves its place on this list.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5g9XorBCikM

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