When I first pulled up the flick on Shudder, I was hoping for 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, the supposedly “fun” Romero Dead movie. That’s the one with survivors of a zombie apocalypse live it up in a mall, enjoying all the materialism the late 1970s could afford.
Despite my efforts, though, I can’t seem to locate that flick on any streaming service I use, so Day of the Dead it was. By now the trope of “humans are the real monsters” is familiar to viewers—and readers of virtually any Stephen King novel—but Day of the Dead delivers that trite message in a taut, unsettling way.
The film takes place at a point in the zombie apocalypse at which virtually no humans are left alive (or not undead). A tiny military unit begrudgingly protects an even tinier team of scientists, the latter of which are attempting to resolve or reverse the zombification of their fellow Americans through scientific means.
The whole situation is fraught with desperation: the soldiers are tired of risking their lives to corral zombie specimens for the scientists to study. The scientists are tired of pressure from the soldiers to produce results. The death of the Major puts the maniacal Captain Henry Rhodes in command. Rhodes threatens the scientists and his men alike with death if they don’t follow his orders (including ordering, at gunpoint, one goofball soldier to shoot Dr. Sarah Bowman, the heroine, if she tries to leave a staff meeting early). Rhodes grows increasingly insane as the situation deteriorates, especially after one of his men is bitten due to the sloppy handling of a zombie by a tweaked out rookie, Miguel Salazar (with whom Dr. Bowman is sleeping, until she injects him with medicine to calm his frayed nerves).
There emerges a tenuous power dynamic between the scientists, the military unit, and two auxiliaries: “Flyboy,” who is the only member of the group capable of flying the base’s helicopter; and Bill McDermott, the radio operator using Second World War-era equipment in a vain attempt to contact other survivors. The soldiers have the guns, so they enjoy a great deal of leverage, but the scientists hold out the vague promise of finding a cure—and the soldiers have orders to protect them from whatever remnant of the United States government remains.
Flyboy and Bill, however, hold the ultimate trump card: their skills are unique and highly valued. The two, therefore, are able to get away with quite a bit more than the rank-and-file soldiers or the weary scientists.
Indeed, one poignant scene—perhaps the most important in the film—involves a long monologue in which Flyboy tells Sarah Bowman that her attempts at finding a scientific solution are futile, and that he believes the zombie apocalypse is a divine curse visited upon man for his hubris: having believed humans could solve all problems scientifically, they built a scientific Tower of Babel, challenging God’s Control over His Creation. To remind us who is boss, God sent the zombie plague.
It’s perhaps the most traditionalist moment in the movie. Flyboy urges Sarah to give up her ungodly quest to stop the zombies, and instead to join him and Bill on some secluded island somewhere, where they can return to a simpler life and make some babies (there’s no sexual connotations to this scene; Flyboy is just earnestly indicating that such is the way life ought to be).
The character of Dr. Matthew “Frankenstein” Logan is perhaps the gruesome, albeit hilarious, counterpoint to Flyboy’s traditionalist wisdom. Logan conducts bloody, slipshod surgeries on zombies, but has also managed to train a zombie, Bub, to perform actions from his human life. Bub is a former soldier—he salutes Captain Rhodes, and knows how to us a gun—and even learns to use a Walkman to listen to “Ode to Joy.” Logan manages to subdue Rhodes with flippant humor and logic, as well as the remarkable nature of his findings.
However, everything falls apart near the end—a vindication of Flyboy’s philosophy. Captain Rhodes guns down Dr. Logan in a rage upon discovering that Frankenstein has been serving Bub the organs of fallen soldiers as a “reward” for good behavior. Salazar, in the midst of a nervous breakdown, commits suicide-by-zombie, simultaneously luring a zombie horde into the subterranean base. Rhodes goes bonkers, and in one of the more unintentionally humorous scenes, gets shot by Bubs (then ripped apart by zombies).
The flick ends with Sarah, Flyboy, and Bill on an island in the Caribbean, enjoying the sweet life while the world shuffles on.
Overall, I enjoyed the movie, though I watched it while bumming off my neighbor’s WiFi during a brief Internet outage, so the buffering was intense (it took me about thirty minutes to watch the last ten of the film). The zombies are the least scary part of the film, which was probably a unique feature in 1985, but is fairly predictable in zombie flicks and television shows today; rather, it’s the tension between the human survivors that make the film terrifying. The first time Rhodes finally makes good on his promise to off a scientist, it’s startling and scary, because it’s so blunt, swift, and brutal (he shoots a scientist through the head at point-blank range when Flyboy says he refuses to fly away with Rhodes and his men, leaving the scientists to die).
That said, the gore is that beautiful, unsettling, practical effects style that only Tom Savini could do. Gore does not interest me in a horror film—I mean, I’m not totally immune to its sickening qualities, I just don’t find it particularly scary or blood-curdling—but Savini’s practical effects are the gold standard. They just have that look about them, the same way that Hammer Films have that look.
Day of the Dead isn’t quite as suspenseful and powerful as the originator of the series, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, but it contains many of the same interpersonal conflicts and petty power struggles. Instead of the hysterical and useless Barbara, Sarah attempts to be a strong-willed but unifying force, constantly nagging Captain Rhodes and her fellow scientists to get along (which Flyboy also fatalistically rejects as hopeless, as humans are destined to bicker and fight), pointing out the benefits of working together. Unlike Night, however, Day ends a bit more happily, with at least some glimmer of hope.