Halloween Endurance Test: Day of the Dead (1985)
The long running final chapter in the Romero zombie series (up to a few years ago it was a trilogy) until the horror resurgence brought some money his way. Also a bit of a downer as far as the series is concerned. Although that (negative) opinion has been undergoing a re-evaluation by the genre’s taste makers.
People have started thinking of Day of the Dead as a victim of circumstance. What could Romero possibly make to top the epic Dawn of the Dead? Is it possible to one-up a shopping mall full of zombies? Would one even want to try?
Audiences weren’t exactly thrilled with the scaled down production. The last movie had helicopters landing on big rigs. This one takes place in a missile silo. It is certainly a step-down in the “spectacular” regard.
I think most critics are now realizing that this down-sizing is directly attributable to the times in which Day… was made. Day of the Dead came out in 1985 and, just as with Dawn…, was made for the drive-in circuit. None of Romero’s …of the Dead movies had ever been rated because of this. You knew what you were getting into when you pulled your car into a drive-in to watch a movie with the word “dead” in the title. You (also) knew not to bring your kids.
Unfortunately the drive-in circuit was just about dead at this point. So convincing investors to put up cash for the latest installment of your (otherwise) successful horror series would be tough. Not as tough as it would be today, yet still tougher than it had been. Nowadays theaters won’t consider playing a film if it’s not rated.
Less money means the vast, grand, idyllic Pennsylvanian locales are gone. They’ve been replaced with tiny, claustrophobic spaces. The move is understandable and unfortunate at the same time.
To offset its budgetary constraints, Day of the Dead opens with the series’ biggest coup. You have to have cash to visit Sarasota! The shot where the alligator crawls out the building with the zombies always works.
Another noticeable trait of the (filmed in) Florida scenes is a general malaise amongst the undead. The zombies just don’t seem to have that spring in their step they always seemed to have.
According to director Romero, this is entirely due to the Sarasota location. In Pittsburgh, where the majority of all the films were shot, the …Dead series was/is a local institution. Everyone and their mother knew Romero, Savini and the crew, and thus wanted a part in the flick. Undergoing hours of zombie make-up was practically a rite of passage.
In Florida, the production was just another movie. Plus, let’s face it, Sarasota was, and still is, a wealthy retirement community. Perhaps dressing up like zombies and ravaging the countryside hits too close to home for the area’s extras; many of whom are almost (un)dead anyway. Not to mention Florida’s stifling, humid heat that surely made acting under three pounds of of make-up slightly less appealing.
I’ve watched this sequence a million times trying to figure out exactly where in Sarasota it was shot. Each time I come up short. I’m beginning to think it’s a situation similar to the one posed by Winter Park, FL in Two Thousand Maniacs. Now I know that that town still exists; hell, Yip-Yip are from there! The unstoppable Disney juggernaut has paved all over Lewis’ homicidal Main Street; erecting Mickey Mouse monoliths all over what used to be the sight of a (fictional) Confederate massacre. It’s a shame really, since either of these film locations could now easily be a top (alternative) tourist destination.
This shift in location highlights another flaw with Romero’s film: the basic premise. Again, the protagonists hide from the zombie hordes in an underground military base. An underground military base situated in Florida. Think about that for a second. Then go outside (for my Florida readers; the rest of you please peruse a map instead) and put your ear to the ground. Hear that? It’s the water flowing six inches under your feet!
Romero made a giant mistake by not introducing aquatic zombies in Day of the Dead. Their inclusion might’ve saved this film from the decades of scorn it has endured. If Fulchi’s Zombie has taught us anything, it’s that zombie versus shark battles are worth the price of admission alone.
Another misstep was planting the seed for the “intelligent” zombie. (“Intelligent” being used on a sliding scale; since even the smartest ones seem to have trouble handling door knobs.) This film unveils Bub, a zombie who’s slowly regaining his memories. He remembers to salute an officer, and can rebuild a pistol (albeit slowly).
Most fans applauded this broadening of the zombie mythos; it allows for new dramatic situations. What these fans are forgetting though, is the zombie’s brutal simplicity. It eats and reproduces (through the eating! Brilliant!); making a zombie invasion characteristically closer to a cancer than an actual military maneuver. Romero loves touting the “normal people act like zombies” message; he has included said message in each of the damn(ed) movies. We get it already George! If I wanted to watch a movie about mankind’s dangerous consumer impulses, I’ll watch Darwin’s Nightmare thank you. Romero’s locales change, yet his ultimate theme never does.
Zombies are more frightening when they don’t have pet names, and aren’t fit to be drafted back into the army. It’s their brainlessness that makes us confuse them with real people in the first place! Do the people you pass on the street have names? Most likely, although you’ll never get the chance to meet them, so they might as well not have.