Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #5
Number of Views: Multiple
Release Date: July 19, 1985
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $34,004,262
Running Time: 100 minutes
Director: George A Romero
Producer: Richard P Rubenstein
Screenplay: George A Romero
Special Effects: Tom Savini, Gregory Nicotero, Everett Burrell, Howard Berger
Cinematography: Michael Gornick
Score: John Harrison
Editing: Pasquale Buba
Studio: Laurel Entertainment Inc, Dead Films Inc
Distributors: United Film Distribution Company, Entertainment in Video (UK VHS)
Stars: Lori Cardille, Joseph Pilato, Terry Alexander, Richard Liberty, Jarlath Conroy, Gary Howard Klar, John Amplas, Gregory Nicotero, Anthony Dileo Jr., Ralph Marrero, Phillip G Kellams, Taso N. Stavrakis, and Howard Sherman as Bub
Cameos: Everett Burrell (Surgeon Zombie in Cave), Howard Berger (Spinaround Cave Zombie), George A Romero (Zombie with Scarf)
Suggested Audio Candy:
John Harrison Opening Suite
I’ve seen a lot of zombies in my time, especially over the past decade since their bid for global domination has been soundly over-documented. However, for Keeper, George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead will forever represent the pinnacle of zombie greatness. While I was barely out of diapers when Dawn of The Dead shuffled center stage, I leaved and breathed every second of the build-up for his long-awaited follow up, repeat viewed the teaser trailer more times than an abacus has beads, and was sold from the very instant that I heard the first groan and shuffle. I affectionately recall the day of its eventual release as I secured my rental, foaming from the mouth like Cujo in the midday heat, before sliding the cassette into my trusty VHS toploader. Needless to say, I was swiftly blown the fuck away.
Undisputed Godfather of the Dead, Romero had the unenviable task of attempting to follow up his own critically acclaimed forerunner, a film that achieved instant cult status with George’s hefty horde of hardcore disciples and which is still regarded by many, to this day, as the ultimate zombie feature. Surely he had set the bar too high, even for himself? What could there possibly be left to comment upon? Day of The Dead couldn’t possibly repeat the feat right? I asked myself all three of these questions prior to commencement and, 100 minutes later, received every last one of my answers. Astonishingly, certain critics were initially dismissive but most of them have long since realized just how deluded they were to oppose such a remarkable landmark movie.
This time around the message was a little more sinister. Some will say pessimistic, where I would prefer the term realistic. One thing is certain: his message here doesn’t exactly fill you with optimism. If Dawn of The Dead had you cheering on the undead once those unruly bikers commenced their short-lived assault, then being cooped up with the deeply disagreeable Captain Rhodes and his band of bludgeoning bullies may well have you inviting them round to meet your family. Once again it hints at the enormity of the outbreak on the outside, and Romero’s original script contained various above-ground skirmishes, but he opts instead to tell a claustrophobic tale set within close quarters. Once again it explores the human condition and how blinkered mankind has become. And once again it delivers a punch so devastating that it literally pounds you into submission.
Developments take place in an underground army base in Florida which becomes our home/prison for the entire duration of the movie, creating an insular, almost stifling atmosphere which only intensifies as tempers fray and lines blur. It’s the age-old clash of scientific bods against military meat heads as a small group of survivors flee to said underground facility and encounter a faction of scientists attempting to preserve the species so that mankind can learn from them and, in direct contrast, a small team of military types tasked with protecting their experiments. Caught in the crossfire are Sarah (Lori Cardille), Helicopter pilot John (Terry Alexander) and radio operator Bill (Jarlath Conroy) who are soon left wishing they had found a different helipad to land on.
One such hapless lab rat is the ever-loveable Bub (played with grace, dignity and conviction by Howard Sherman). What Bub really needs is a first-class dermatologist, but instead he gets Logan (Richard Liberty) or Frankenstein as he is unaffectionately referred to by his unscrupulous opposite number, Rhodes (a delightfully paranoid Joe Pilato). Logan has a number of delightfully scripted and executed exchanges with the Captain as tempers increasingly fray, while the captain’s favored lackey Steele (Gary Howard Klar) and the rest of his wolf pack chew the scenery like Rottweilers. There is also a wonderfully understated turn from Romero regular John Amplas as Logan’s assistant, Fisher whose presence culminates in one of the film’s truly devastating moments. Day of The Dead has quality running through it from stem to stern and composer John Harrison underscores the whole thing exquisitely with his masterful audio side relish.
As the story advances we observe Bub starting to develop both humanity and empathy whilst Rhodes and his troops become increasingly volatile, disconnected and inhumane, to the point of downright psychosis in some cases. The symposium Romero is provoking here is that zombies have as much right on this planet as we do. After all, they have the ability to learn, something explored further in the fourth film in his series, whereas we appear to have forgotten how to or become too plain ignorant to apprehend. It’s a depressingly downbeat statement but the tragedy is that it echoes reality and it is here that Day of The Dead becomes even more pertinent than either of its lineage.
As the tension continues building and we approach the expected crescendo, the inevitable breach finally occurs and absolute hysteria breaks out. At this point, we are treated to the remaining grunts being overrun and literally torn limb from bloody limb by the flesh-eating traveling circus. However, even when all hell is preparing to break loose, Romero still finds time to tickle our funny bones. One excitable shuffler steps off the cargo lift a second too soon in a priceless snapshot moment, proving once again that comedy is most effective when surrounded by sheer terror. Of course, he shifts instantly back to breathless dread once the lift touches down and the proverbial shit hits not only the fan but the back wall also.
Art is a form of expression and Romero articulates his point with the subtlety of a four kilo splitting maul. While this approach may lead some to shun him it is, more often than not, because they are terrified of the harsh truth which runs through its spine emphatically. In Michael Felsher’s foreword for the Region 1 Anchor Bay release, he holds his hands up and concedes that he was unfair in his damning and vitriolic dismissal of the feature upon first viewing and explains that he now views it as the classic it is. To his eternal credit, Felsher had the cojones to do his extreme about-face publicly, although he did have twenty years to realize he was pissing in his own soda. One would imagine that humble pie was being consumed en masse by droves of like-minded naysayers who allowed the sheer burden of expectation taint their experience.
I couldn’t dream of wrapping up this appraisal without commenting on the all-important gore. Savini, aided by fresh-faced FX trio Gregory Nicotero, Howard Berger and Everett Burrell has a much more developed set of tools at his disposal with seven years more experience and seven times the budget to spend than previously. Spend it he does and his zombies open their sufferers like excitable toddlers on Christmas morning. No expense is spared here with the film daring to delve deeper into the depths of depravity and arriving at the right time, after the whole video nasty debate had died down. Certain scenes would make a grown man wince and I am not ashamed to be part of that exclusive group. Meanwhile, the ending leaves us facing the stark reality that mankind needs to go back and start again if it is to have a hope of enduring.
Day of the Dead is undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with and I believe even its most stubborn detractors will long since have wised up. But does it ever scale the heights of its predecessor? While this is ultimately down to our own subjective viewpoints, I would argue doggedly that it does. Romero himself considers this as his personal favorite and, even after all this time, it remains shocking. In a world where moviegoers have become increasingly desensitized to the sight of zombies snacking on innards, Romero’s ferocious third still has the ability to turn stomachs and that, in itself, is some achievement. There really is no greater praise that I can bestow upon it than that other than tossing George’s junk personally but I think I shall stick to a handshake. Only because he has marvellously large hands mind.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 10/10
Grue Rating: 5/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers: Do I really need to elaborate? There are too many highlights to even attempt to mention but watching roguish rat Rhodes torn asunder by the embittered undead offers satisfaction unparalleled, while Bub’s fitting salute as the horde chow down is truly incalculable. The final third is a bona fide free-for-all with countless flesh ripped away, heads detached from their windpipes and, in one agonizing instance, eyes gouged out. Make no mistake, had this been released four years earlier, it would have been promptly named and shamed. It feels as though Savini is saying one large “fuck you sideways” to the censors and I just feel bad for the poor douche on mop up duties.
Keeper of the Crimson Quill
Copyright: Crimson Quill: Savage Vault Enterprises 2013 (Revised Edition 2015)