Sunday, May 20, 2012

RUTZ Classic Movies: Day of the Dead

Directed by George A. Romero    

Line that stays with me:  “Is anyone alive out there?!!”

Essay Warning: There are no spoilers or story details. I want to offer the emotion that a film can access within us. Plus I think the best way to watch a film is by not knowing anything about it. Just Go In…So if you haven’t watched this film yet please don’t read this essay. Read it afterwards so we can enjoy the “feeling” together. 

George Romero’s Dead series is one the most underrated achievements in cinema. From “Night of the living Dead” to “Survival of the Dead” it is amazing how well these films hold up and how the images of cold reality on display draw us in. It seems that we will never get this sort of cinema on the big screen in the USA ever again.  I am not only talking about blood and guts here. I am speaking about the honesty George Romero delivered with all his characters. In a George Romero movie people are racist, people are weak and some characters are plain insane. I miss that sort of honesty at the movies. It is one thing to watch a zombie movie being slightly excited by the plot, which is usually about a group of people trying to escape their doom.  It is another sort of experience to be drawn into the plot because you are interested in the characters. You are interested in the dynamics between the characters that will surely cause a rift. That sort of execution adds a terrible sense of reality that keeps you interested not only on what the characters will do next but also excited on what they will say next. It is a very special and, difficult movie thing to do, to make audiences excited to hear the characters speak. When you watch “Day of the Dead” you are never bored to death with standard horror film dialog, like “We have to reach the lake before blah, blah, blah”. You are excited to hear the characters in this film speak because they sound like real people. George Romero did his job as a writer and gave these characters instant depth. I don’t care if one of the characters says SPICK. The character is racist, there are racist people in real life last time I checked. If the zombie apocalypse was ever to come, you better believe our race issues will be one of the reasons we won’t survive.

We rarely see racism in film, that’s why I think George Romero writes in racist characters in his films to confront audiences with dark truths and for kicks. I am Hispanic and I laugh during scenes of the movie featuring racial slurs. I find it funny because people who are racist are usually scared, immature or not very smart. They are silly people who believe somehow without proof that their race is superior to others.  How can you not laugh at a fool? That’s one aspect of it; on the other hand it makes me laugh because I am pretty sure that’s how it would happen in real life. So with one stroke George Romero has added tension to his story and comical relief. You feel you are watching a film that holds some truth and merit even though there are zombies running around eating people. It is a, hell of an achievement. Nowadays we only catch racism in movies like “The Help” which makes racism seem like some old past time called “It used to be so much worse”.  It is almost like selling the horrors of racism back to people because supposedly it is an uplifting story. Yet, racism is still alive and well. It will not be conquered if we treat it with such flimsy attitudes. “Day of the Dead” lets racism rear its true ugly head, reminding us that one day we might need each other in order to survive and if we don’t solve our petty differences before then, we will lose. That’s just one of the great layers that “Day of the Dead” has to offer. Even if you don’t get that powerful message from the film, you are still watching a classic horror film with all the guts to prove it.

George Romero and John Russo created and cemented the idea of zombies as we know it. I do not think people give George Romero enough credit. His crazy zombie idea, which on paper doesn’t make much sense, has given so many other artists a staggering amount of jobs in the last forty years. From make-up artists working on Michael Jackson’s Thriller music video, to Capcom producing Resident Evil. This one idea is a perfect example of people standing on the shoulders of a genius, yet people barely know his name. It doesn’t matter though; when you watch “Day of the Dead” you know who the man is. The remakes don’t hold a candle to his masterpieces, which have been ripped off to death.  “Day of the Dead” is a crazy mix of stunning imagery, strong characters, pulsing catchy music by John Harrison, pitch perfect performances and some of best make up effects created by the legendary Tom Savini. Right from the beginning the film sets the tone of dread and despair. No fancy credits needed, an opening of a film should set the tone of what will come next. In the opening scene of “Day of the Dead” we see our hero Sarah, stare at a calendar which represents wasted time and her sense of doom.  A beautiful opening that asks a question that most films do not ask, “Am I wasting my time in this life?” A question I am sure many of us ask during tenures in our 9 to 5 hells. John, “Fly boy”, confronts Sarah with this truth when he tells her they should leave the underground bunker and go find some place where they can enjoy life again and, raise some babies.  The film takes the stance of; if you can’t beat them, leave them the hell alone. This is better than the old mantra if you can’t beat them, join them.   

A great film to me is a film that takes you on a journey thoroughly thought out on different levels and manages to be entertaining, undiscovered even after several viewings. It must have the power to fight every art form’s true enemy, the passing of time. The only way to achieve that is by not cutting corners when it comes to the fundamentals of great film making and having visionary ideas.  The images in“Day of the Dead” keeps your eyes glued to the screen and other times makes you look away as a zombie rips a body in half. The music which was famously used in a Gorrilaz song grows on you, sticks in your head and gives the film a perfect tempo. The film’s villain Captain Rhodes is a villain you love to hate, which is important for a genre film. I cannot stand watching a genre film with a dull villain. Rhodes is a bastard, who says things like “Get your black ass out here” and “Or are you just in there jerking each other off!”  The rest of the Rhodes cronies are just as bad and racist as he is which gives the film an authenticity that helps the story progress very naturally. This is a science experiment gone wrong. You have your weak character Miguel, a man falling apart from all the horrors he’s witnessed. This is a very important character. The sort of character you rarely see in movies nowadays, a weak man. The importance of a character like Miguel goes unnoticed but it is there. Miguel’s weakness shows the audience how strong Sarah is in contrast. It makes you not hate Rhodes and his cronies for you feel that at least they are not being crybabies about the situation. Miguel is pivotal to film’s obvious declaration of humanity as a whole, the strange balance and the misunderstandings.

Miscommunication is the only real enemy for everybody in the bunker. No one is working together to solve the problem and some are broken beyond repair. I love that line that “Fly Boy” says “That's the trouble with the world, Sarah darlin'. People got different ideas concernin' what they want out of life.” The very same problems America still has today. Of course George Romero was trying to make a point and I am glad he had the balls to do it. The metaphor being that we are already zombies. That’s why Dr. Frankenstein’s scenes are very important. It lets George Romero discuss those very taboo ideas in a slight disguise. Dr. Frankenstein says people are only civil if they are promised a reward and that these zombies could be controlled. As Sarah explained he does not want to solve the problem but is merely trying to find a way to control it, which means it will never end. Sounds like a USA problem to me. Instead of trying to stop crimes from happening by discovering the source of the problem, we put people in jail, we don’t try to change their ways, and later they come out of jail with even worst ideas, plus not many prospects in getting a decent job. How do you think that story is going to end up? Same goes for our failed war on drugs which has never contemplated reaching the source of the problem. That’s why I love that Dr.Frankenstein is insane, it’s like saying America you’re nuts, you think you can control mindless zombies? With the way school funding keeps decreasing around the country I think you get my point. The fact that George Romero found a way to say this in his film without hitting you over the head is one of his many great accomplishments.

There are so many interesting themes and thoughts worth discussing but at the end of the DAY, this film is horror romp. Gross out scenes of human intestines falling on the floor, a zombie’s head ripped in half with a shovel. These make-up effects look so much better than anything digital. Excellent sequences filled with high tension. My favorite being near the end as Sarah and company follow the red lights to escape the bunker with the hue of blue lights giving the frames a very COOL look. You also have the strange story of Bub the zombie, which seems like a tribute to all under appreciated war veterans everywhere. The scenes of desperation at the end also show doom like very few pictures have. Some go kicking and screaming, one decides to take his own life and another gets delirious as he meets his end. These are all very interesting moments. We rarely see characters in films, characters that we’ve gotten to know, reach such a brutal ends and to watch them react to their death gives us an insight on how people face the end of their lives.  On the other end of the spectrum we see our heroes, Sarah and company on a beach enjoying life again. We watch Sarah X another day on her calendar, a beautiful scene which suggests that she is finally living her life. No longer underground, no longer fighting a pointless battle. It is a hard idea to come to terms with because it sounds like giving up. But when the powers that be no longer value your life and the reality of changing things proves too difficult, the question becomes how much time are you willing to lose? An unfortunate truth of this world, one Sarah finally came to terms with.  Do you want to change the world and suffer or live life while you still can? I think it is worth fighting the good fight if we can win, but if we honestly cannot I’d rather spend my last days making great long lasting memories before it is too late.  

ABOUT RCM: Rutz Classic Movies is dedicated on writing film essays for films that in Rutz's opinion, have not gotten the credit they deserve. Next Essay: Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia 


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