Halloween Endurance Test: Day of the Dead (2008)

I avoided this film for a long time. The original Day of the Dead, while generally looked down upon as the weakest of George Romero’s first three zombie movies, still had its moments. Maybe it’s just hometown pride, but knowing the opening was shot next door in Sarasota, impresses you when you’re a kid. Setting the film in a missile silo supposedly in Florida was decidedly less impressive. (Florida’s water table being way too high to allow for missile silos to be built.)

The Day of the Dead remake keeps the original’s focus on the military-industrial complex, while wisely relocating the action to Colorado. (A state that can conceivably house missile silos.) It also inhabits a previously unexplored place in Romero’s zombie apocalypse continuum. Even at its start (Night of the Living Dead), Romero always dealt with the world after the zombies had taken over.

Here we’re shown just how the zombies took over. The fall of civilization on a scale much larger than Diary of the Dead’s. The only zombie movie in recent memory to also deal with the actual point where the zombies take over is Planet Terror, and again, the scale is off. Here we’re seeing a major metropolitan area, an outlying suburb of Boulder, change over from living to undead. Planet Terror, while also dealing with that change, saw it occurring in a backwoods Louisiana swamp.

The most common criticism thrown at the film is how derivative it is as a remake. A rather weak criticism when you consider that it is, after all, a zombie film! George Romero has been dodging Richard (I Am Legend) Matheson’s calls for decades over the similarities over their stories!

If anything, 28 Days Later is more this film’s predecessor, as both feature zombies that stand around bored until they smell humans, and sprinting towards their prey when people come near. Unlike Danny Boyle Rage-induced combatants though, these creatures are clearly flesh-eating zombies.

Head shots and decapitations kill them, and also, in a strange addition to the canon, bleach. While it won’t prevent an infection, household bleach, when poured directly over a zombie bitten wound, will hinder the infection. Slowing it down enough to buy our heros some time to argue over what makes us human: actions vs intentions.

Leading to the creation of the remakes version of “Bub,” the original Day of the Dead’s “intelligent zombie,” renamed here “Bud” (Stark Sands). It’s telling how, in the 80s, it was strong emotional bonds that could slow zombification. Nowadays, we can’t even say that, with our movies testifying to our chemical attachments.

Heroic zombie Bud does lead us directly to the movie’s greatest innovation: the zombie soldier! While they still thirst for blood, all their gear makes them stumble around firing off their rifles haphazardly into the air. As far as a film sequence goes, it’s brilliant! Giving us a little taste of what might happen if a zombie feasted on a lush. However, as a horror sequence it fails, mainly because it plays more comical than terrifying.

One thing that does work in Day of the Dead’s favor is how playful it is with its derivativeness. Every zombie movie has a scene where a group of characters try to figure out which one amongst them is infected. This is worked superbly, as all the characters involved here have spent nearly equal time on-screen. So, subconsciously you have no clues about who it is. Better still, the clues you do get, such as the mother’s suspicious cough, all have perfectly valid explanations. (After all, she was coughing earlier in the film, wasn’t she?)

Even the ending manages to wring some life out of another tried and true genre convention. Besides the “who’s a zombie” guessing game, all zombie movies face the same dilemma with their finales: how to close it? Either the zombies win, which isn’t exactly Hollywood-approved “family friendly,” or usually the town the infection is centered in must be destroyed. The Return of the Living Dead solution, if you will; just drop a bomb on them.

Using the firebomb method on the town would be too obvious a lift, so writer Jeffrey Reddick uses a jury-rigged firebomb set to detonate underground. Vaporizing the zombies while also subverting yet another cinematic convention (this time from the “action” genre). The big “hero runs through a tunnel, frantically racing against an expanding wall of flames” sequence now becoming a “racing zombies get vaporized” showcase for the effects team.

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