Retro Review: If the Dead Come, Can We Learn to Live with Them?! Splatter Cinema Presents DAY OF THE DEAD at The Plaza

Posted on: May 13th, 2013 By:

DAY OF THE DEAD (1985); Dir. George Romero; Starring Lori Cardille and Joe Pilato; Tuesday, May 14, 9:30 p.m.; Plaza Theatre; Trailer here. Presented by Splatter Cinema.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

George A. Romero’s 1968 classic NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD warned audiences that when there was no more room in Hell, the dead would walk the earth. It was a strong and resonating nightmare for Americans who, after a decade of unrest and war, had begun to wonder if Hell was truly spilling over. Romero’s 1985 film DAY OF THE DEAD has an entirely different thought for people living through the last days of the Cold War: if the dead come, can we learn to live with them? Can we learn to live with ourselves?

DAY OF THE DEAD, which arrives at the Plaza Theatre on Tuesday night for the Splatter Cinema series, is the third film in Romero’s Dead trilogy, following the nihilistic NIGHT and 1978’s satirical classic DAWN OF THE DEAD. Unlike most movie franchises, the films in Romero’s Dead series have no direct connections to one another. Each film is an isolated story located within the same world where a plague of zombies has destroyed civilization and where the best and worst instincts of the human race clash against each other in the last, desperate clutch for survival. Fans of THE WALKING DEAD may recognize that world, and may or may not know that they owe a debt to Romero: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD invented the modern concept of the zombie, and Romero perfected using the dead to explore the dark side of the living. In NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, racial tensions and domestic violence tears at a small band of survivors; DAWN OF THE DEAD skewers the lure of commerce and capitalism as zombies descend on a shopping mall; 2005’s LAND OF THE DEAD shows a group of wealthy survivors crawling to safety on the backs of the poor.

DAY OF THE DEAD is more of a closed system, a bottle episode that puts two opposing ideologies into an tight space and shakes them up. Sarah (Lori Cardille) is part of a dwindling team of scientists in an underground military compound charged with finding a cure for the zombie plague. The soldiers assigned to protect them are led by Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato), who barks orders and grows increasingly hostile to the science team as the hopelessness of their situation becomes clear. The fuse in the powderkeg is the cache of zombies the scientists are drawing from for their experiments, especially a dead guy named “Bub” who may be learning to be human again.

Always considered something of a problem child in the Romero series because it compares unfavorably to the (let’s admit it) superior DAWN, fans and critics initially kicked DAY OF THE DEAD down the street, leading to an agonizing 20-year delay before Romero returned to zombies in LAND. But DAY has been picking up attention from critics lately and the signs point to what could eventually be a complete rehabilitation. Yes, the movie’s problems are hard to ignore—for an apocalyptic movie, it sure feels very small, and the performances are grating—but Romero crafts the story and stages his world with his trademark critic’s eye. The signature conflict between progress and aggression, between building and destroying, is slathered on pretty thick, but the film is also an intriguing analogy about forming camps to shoot at one another when the enemy is, quite literally, at the gates. The movie could be about climate change or a financial collapse—all that really matters is the struggle about who gets to be leader on a sinking ship.

But DAY OF THE DEAD is a zombie horror movie, let’s not forget, and it’s the visuals that really help the film pop next to the rest of the b-horror crowd. This is a Splatter Cinema screening, which means there’s plenty of outrageous gore and some of the best of Tom Savini’s famous zombie effects. Romero has a particular gift for encouraging great monster makeup and then finding inventive and iconic ways to shoot it. DAY OF THE DEAD has plenty of munchy, crunchy effects, but it also has one of the most infamous disembowelings in movie history. And here I sit, 10 years after I first saw the film, never able to shake the opening image, where a zombie walks past sporting only the least-useful half of its jaw while an old rotting newspaper declares in its headline that “THE DEAD WALK!”

The NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was a literal evening of horrors, but the DAWN of its sequel was more of a metaphor, a way to describe the gradual realization that the world had changed and would never be the same. DAY OF THE DEAD continues that metaphor. The long day is here and the survivors have only the bleak reality that arrives and lingers—we’re all alone, on our own, and fodder for the cold inevitable.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game writer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He writes at www.thehollywoodprojects.com and hosts a bimonthly screening series of classic films at theaters around Atlanta.

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