Of George Romero's original trio of zombie movies, the one I have the least acquaintance with is Day of the Dead (1985). This isn't really an accident--I didn't like Day of the Dead the first time I saw it and I didn't like it any better when I saw it again in the mid-90s. There are two reasons for this, really: first, it's populated by wholly unpleasant characters, even the heroes (a fault compounded by generally bad performances from all involved); second, it's easily the most nihilistic of Romero's original trio. The younger me found this to be off-putting. The older me still finds it a bit off-putting, but the older me is also a bit more forgiving of this sort of thing. When I originally wrote about the film for my old web site, some thirteen years ago, I noted:
"Romero is too talented to make a totally uninteresting movie when he is working in his own self-invented sub-genre, and there is actually material here that holds one's attention, but most of the film's best moments are provided by Tom Savini's thoroughly repulsive grue. Given that the principal aesthetic virtues of Night and Dawn of the Dead are not provided by their grue would indicate that Romero is using his effects as a holding action until he can make the movie he really wants to make."
Some of those interesting things seem a lot more important a decade further on. Alone of Romero's zombie films, Day of the Dead is not an allegory, per se. True, you could consider the underground fortress in which the movie is set--a mine shaft littered with the detritus of a ruined civilization--to be a kind of a grave, but that's not what the movie is really about. What this movie seems to be saying is that our species needs to out grow our propensity for violence or we will all die in a global abattoir. To this end, and to make the point, the movie's heroes maintain a corral for a stockpile of zombies, as they pick over the corpse of the world looking for a way forward. This, of course, is the point of the first half of the movie and it's tedious barrage of recriminations between the film's two factions. It's the bickering of children (certainly, the schoolyard taunts issuing from Steel and Rickles are intended to reinforce that view). The military gets the brunt of the film's disdain, bearing the world's racism and sexism as a matter of course. The film's mad scientist, Dr. Logan, is looking to impose his will on the zombies. It gets him killed in the end. In contrast, there comes a point at which McDermott (the helicopter pilot) is obliged to throw his gun away. He lives. We need to move past violence, the movie seems to be saying, but it may be too late. The movie has an ostensibly happy ending, with Sara (Lori Cardille) waking from a nightmare only to find the other two survivors fishing on the beach. But is this a happy ending at all? The movie begins with her waking from a nightmare, after all, and we've seen what that gets her. Further, the tropical setting of this end is foreshadowed by the tropical decor of McDermott's corner of the base, complete with soundtrack cue, and that, too, proved to be a false refuge. The nightmare continues.
Some of the elements of Day of the Dead find their way into Zack Snyder's 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, a film that continues to surprise me. It originally surprised me by being worthy of its predecessor. These days, it surprises me by holding up to repeat viewings. This has the best cast of any zombie film that I can name. Sarah Polley and Ving Rhames invest the film with more committed performances than one would expect, and the movie is the better for it (in contrast, Romero's originals are plagued by dodgy acting). It also has terrific cues on the soundtrack, made possible by its big studio backing. This film also shows some influence from the Stephen King/Steven Spielberg school of horror when it grounds itself in suburban reality at its start. We see the world before the fall, rather than as the fall is in progress. Rather than soften the blow when everything flies apart, it intensifies it instead. But more than any of that, it has an instinct for the jugular. You see this in its razor sharp opening salvo, which is 13 minutes of pedal to the metal horror filmmaking. You see it in its willingness to follow the character arc of the film's pregnant character to its logical extreme. This jugular instinct is what it borrows from Day (rather than the original Dawn). Unlike Peter and Fran, who escape to an uncertain future in the original, our heroes escape to the universe postulated by Day in the remake. In fact, the filmmakers have it both ways in the remake, giving the audience who leaves before the final credits roll a hopeful ending, while giving die-hards a brace of nihilism on the way out to their cars. It's a neat trick.
One thing that struck me this go around (and which struck me with Day as well) is the way all of the children of Night of the Living Dead exist in the now. There is no chronology from film to film that makes any kind of sense. The zombie disaster is always a plague of the moment, and the fallout, whether it's the death of consumer culture in the 70s or the burning buildings on the horizon in the remake of Dawn (so reminiscent of 9/11 and Oklahoma City), is always the destruction of the present. This, more than anything, is what makes these films eternally popular, I think.