Home Video Hovel: Day of the Dead, by Sarah Brinks
I owe a great debt of gratitude to one of my college roommates for introducing me to the zombie genre. I had always been a big sissy when it came to any type of horror movie; now it is one of my favorite genres of film. The more I see from the genre, the more I recognize that these films have a lot more to say deep down then it may appear on the surface. Day of the Dead is one of those films.
The basic plot of Day of the Dead is that the zombie apocalypse has happened and has been going on for some time now. A group of civilian scientists have been partnered with a group of soldiers to try and answer some of the questions about the zombies. The film starts with the civilians flying a helicopter into a town overrun by zombies looking for survivors when they find none they return to the mines where their scientific facility has been set up. There we see that the military might be more dangerous then the zombies. Sarah, a scientist, and the lead of the film, is trying to figure out how to stop the undead from rising again. Meanwhile, another scientist – referred to as Doctor Frankenstein – is trying to find out what makes the zombies want to eat us and ultimately trying to learn how to teach the zombies to “behave”.
There was a lot that I liked about the film, but I also had some problems with it. In a post-Alien world, it was not unheard of to have a female lead of an action film. Sarah (Lori Cardille) is a tough woman who doesn’t buckle under the pressure of the situation she is in, but she is also the heart of the film. She is allowed some very human moments of vulnerability and femininity, but she also can kick ass when she needs to. As in Night of the Living Dead, when Romero took a risk and successfully made the hero of that film an African American, he successfully makes a woman the hero of Day of the Dead. And by making the military the real villains, and sometimes worse monsters then the zombies, he uses the film to ask whether the military/government actually protecting us and looking out for our best interests, furthering his progressive perspective. Doctor Frankenstein is clearly a crazy man with his own agenda and his character begs the question, “Can science actually save us? Is our faith in science misplaced or too devout?” That type of social commentary is fascinating and makes Day of the Dead still relevant.
Some of my issues with the film come down to the fact that it can feel a tad dated. The soundtrack and special effects are very much of their time, and often irritating. The two biggest problems I had with the film are how sexist and racist it was. I know a lot of that comes back to the social commentary, but it is way over the top. The comments made by the soldiers about potential raping Sarah are said often and without concern. There are lines about, “passing her around for other to have a go at.” It is really upsetting to watch, especially when it becomes clear very quickly that she is the only woman there, and while tough, she is vulnerable. Also the unapologetic racism to my modern ears is really rough. They often refer the Hispanic character Miguel as yellow, and make rude comments about the black character, John.
Some of the performances are way over the top. The most obvious is Joseph Pilato as Captain Rhodes. They address the concerns and criticism of Rhodes in the special features but I think it was way too much. It was sort of an 80s trope to have the one character who go off the rails at the drop of hat, but Rhodes is really insane and is truly a monster. Steel and Rickles, the main sources of sexism and racism in the film, certainly aren’t helping matters. They are completely off their rockers, and, in a normal situation, would have been an insane asylum or something.
One aspect of the plot that I find very interesting is Doctor Frankenstein’s efforts to teach the zombies to behave. He actually makes a lot of progress with one of the zombies that he nicknames Bub. Bub gets so far along he no longer sees the Doctor as “food.” My interpretation of this is that Romero was trying to show that we should never give up hope and that our humanity runs deeper then anything. Zombie movies seem to fall into two categories: the optimistic ones and the pessimistic ones. Day of the Dead falls into the optimistic category, not just because of its hopeful ending, but also because it shows that people are good even if they forget it for a while.
The Blu-ray collector’s edition looks and sounds great. The transfer is very clear. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. It is good because you get a beautiful copy of the film that looks and sounds great. It also highlights some of the weaker aspects of the film, such as the 80’s zombie make-up effects. There are hours of special features on the film. The most interesting to me was an hour and a half long documentary about the making of the film called, “World’s End: The Legacy of Day of the Dead.” The living members of the cast and crew talk about their experiences, jobs, and roles in Day of the Dead. Watching the documentary actually made me like the film more in retrospect after hearing some of the things I didn’t like about the film being explained. There is a special feature that is behind the scenes footage of the special effects make-up from Toni Savini’s archives. There is a guided tour feature of the mines where they shot the film almost twenty years ago. Other features include: photo galleries, TV spots, trailers, etc. For Ramero fans or zombie fans in general the Blu-ray collector’s edition is a good buy given how much you get for your money.
I went into Day of the Dead with low expectations and was surprised and very pleased with the film. I think Romero’s recent work has probably sullied my opinion of his films, but his early work is really impressive and politically interesting. I can easily recommend the Blu-ray collector’s edition of Day of the Dead.