Day of the Dead (1985)

Trilogy of Terror: Day of the Dead (1985)

This is how the world ends, not with a bang but…actually, there are a lot of bangs, and they’re mainly fired by and at the few remaining survivors. But what else is new, eh?

Continuing my tradition of not wanting to see these films, I ignored Day of the Dead for years on the grounds that it was “the bad one.” Okay, yes, we got three actual bad ones after this (though I do have a soft spot for Diary of the Dead, which I think has a lot of good ideas) but of the good ones, this is the bad one.

I heard people complain about how it’s boring. About how it’s unnecessary. About how the acting is hammy and over the top. I didn’t actively avoid it, but whenever it came time to sit and watch a movie I hadn’t seen before, I kept picking other things. Why wouldn’t I? It seemed my time would be better spent elsewhere.

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This was absolutely my loss. When I finally got around to seeing it a few years ago, it immediately became my favorite in the series. No amount of rewatching this or any of the others has changed my mind. I think Day of the Dead is a masterpiece, and I will go to bat for almost all of its creative choices.

Yes, even the acting.

In fact, the very things I kept hearing were weaknesses are, I feel, this film’s greatest strengths.

Watching it again, I was impressed by how little happens. The other times I’ve seen this film, I just sat and watched. This time, knowing I’d be writing an essay about it, I must have been paying attention in a different way.

I realized how few scenes there are. I realized how long most of them continue. I realized how little is shown and how much is said. And I think all of it works, because the movie is entirely about this confined group and how they interact.

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As with Night of the Living Dead, the zombies are incidental. They are the reason these people are crammed together underground and can’t leave. Anything beyond that is flavor. Gory, effective, engaging flavor, sure, but they aren’t the story.

In fact, one of the characters basically tells this to another. Sarah, our protagonist, is speaking about the work she’s doing. She’s trying to figure out the zombies. What are they? Why are they this way? Can they be cured, stopped, neutralized, anything?

“You ain’t never gonna figure it out,” says John, the pilot. “What you’re doing is a waste of time, Sarah, and time is all we got left, you know.”

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Stories have beginnings, middles, and ends. Stories have themes. Stories have rising and falling action. These zombies? They’re not a story. They’re constant. They’re everywhere. They’re disposable and inexhaustible.

People? That’s different. They have hopes and dreams and goals and personalities and talents and fears and preferences and opinions and…well, they’re individuals.

The zombies’ story will never be documented, studied, or solved.

Focus on your story, Sarah. Where’s that one going to go?

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Sarah, played by Lori Cardille, is my favorite character in the series. I don’t know that I can articulate why that is, but I feel an investment in her whenever I watch the film that I don’t feel for anybody else.

In the previous films and the next films and in this film, there are characters whose deaths would register as tragic, as unfortunate, as sad. Sometimes they die, sometimes they don’t, but we all watch these movies and pick out the characters we hope will survive, however likely that outcome actually is.

Sarah is the only one who makes me feel as though her death would be a loss. It wouldn’t just be that a nice person is no longer with us; it’s that the human race — wherever it is, whatever its numbers in this film — would be measurably worse without her.

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Part of that, and maybe a large part, is down to the strength of Cardille’s acting, which I think is excellent. Sarah has held herself together better than anybody else in this facility, and while that should register as a strength, the film effectively sells it as a liability.

“We’re all collapsing,” she’s told by her beau, Miguel. “This whole fucking unit is collapsing. Everybody except you. I know you’re strong, alright? So what? Stronger than me. Stronger than everyone. So what?”

They resent her for retaining full control of her emotions, her rationality, and her faculties, and Cardille sells that conflict perfectly…that awareness that things would be easier — maybe not better, certainly not safer, but easier — if she just let herself fucking…fall…apart.

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But she can’t. There’s something inside of her that remains strong, through everything. Not one other person in the film admires it, and maybe she doesn’t even admire it, but it’s there. It’s real. It’s something deep in her core that’s keeping her together as everything and everyone else falls to pieces.

I suppose the difference is that in most films — most stories — there is something to overcome. There is an exit. There is a goal. Hold yourself together long enough to get there, that’s all. You can fall apart later; you just have to stay strong now.

But the zombies have no end. They aren’t a story. Without a goal…without an objective that can be reached…you can’t fall apart. Ever. You are in a constant state of fighting your own emotional gravity and you literally cannot let go because you promised yourself you’d keep it together until you reached an ending that isn’t coming.

Without a release, that kind of inner strength becomes tragic.

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When the film opens, she is one of 13 survivors who have so far ridden out the zombie apocalypse in an underground base in south Florida. (“A great big 14-mile tombstone,” John calls it, “with an epitaph on it that nobody’s gonna bother to read.”)

She is out on a scouting mission, hoping to locate other people. She finds only zombies, and she returns to the base to find out she is now one of 12 survivors. Major Cooper has died.

When I watch horror films, I like to try to pinpoint the event horizon, the exact moment in the movie at which all is lost. There will likely be setbacks and moments of false hope throughout, but what one, singular event or decision tips the scale irrevocably?

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In Night of the Living Dead, I’d say it’s the disaster at the gas pump. In Dawn of the Dead is obviously when the biker gang shows up. In Day of the Dead? I’m genuinely convinced that the scales have already tipped by the time the film begins. Though I can’t say for sure, it’s possible that the deciding factor was the death of Major Cooper.

To explain why this matters — this off-camera death of a character we have not met — is to distill the film down to its central conflict. And putting that into words requires background that we only get in scattered bits of exposition.

At some point — likely very soon after the zombie outbreak and clearly before humanity was overrun — the U.S. government sent at least one team of researchers into an underground bunker to find a solution to the problem. (We can assume other teams were sent down into other bunkers, but we have no explicit confirmation of that fact.) A group of soldiers is assigned to them in order to provide protection, security, and resources while the scientists go about their work.

This was the arrangement. The military handles the defense, and the research team handles the pandemic. The latter can potentially save the world and the former will keep them safe so that they have every opportunity to do so.

The reality, by the time the film begins, is much different. It’s possible that the arrangement held for a time. A few months. A year. Maybe even several years; who knows? The point is, that’s no longer how the group operates.

Or groups, I should say.

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The arrangement should have been symbiotic. In exchange for protecting the lives of the scientists, the scientists would save humanity.

But as time ticks along and humanity remains unsaved…as the research continues without definitive results to share or even progress to demonstrate…as soldiers keep dying in an attempt to protect a group that — as far as they can tell — is accomplishing nothing, the mood begins to shift.

Whether or not the soldiers ever truly saw the relationship as symbiotic, by the time the film begins they understand it as the relationship between host and parasite.

What’s more, it’s taking a measurable toll on the host. While the researchers have lost one member in an unspecified incident, the soldiers have lost five.

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Of course, this was the point. The soldiers should have been the ones absorbing the casualties in order to prevent the researchers from perishing instead. It was decided that this would be a civilian operation with the full support and assistance of the military.

But nobody who made that decision is down here in the bunker today. The soldiers who are see this as one hell of an unfair situation.

“You’re running out of friends fast around here,” says the new commanding officer, in the most impressive understatement of the film.

So let’s talk about that new commanding officer: Captain Rhodes.

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Rhodes’ battlefield promotion happened while Sarah was away, taking place at the moment of Major Cooper’s death.

I get the sense Major Cooper wasn’t the original commanding officer. Unless I’m missing something, the film does not make it clear who the other four marine casualties were, but I’ve always interpreted Major Cooper as having received a battlefield promotion himself.

“I thought Cooper was an asshole,” says one of the researchers, Fisher, to Sarah, “but he was a sweetheart next to Rhodes.”

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That leads me to think that the research team already saw Major Cooper as a step down from whomever preceded him, and now they’ve stepped down again. That could just be me. Ultimately the specifics don’t matter, but I bring all of this up for an important reason:

Rhodes is a fucking terrible human being, and yet I understand exactly where he’s coming from.

He’s the film’s villain, to be clear, but he has a genuine reason to push back against the research team — by default, at least, “the good guys” — and to hold contempt for them.

He served under at least one other commanding officer. He has seen five of his fellow men give their lives for this mission. This mission which has resulted in a net reduction of zero zombies and which has inched no closer to succeeding in its goal since they started.

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In short, he’s seen five of his fellow men give their lives for nothing. If nothing changes, five more will die…and then there won’t be any military left.

On top of that, he’s been thrust into a leadership role only because everybody above him on the chain of command has been killed. That’s important to remember when assessing Rhodes; he does not want to lead. He did not seize control. He did not demand that others follow him.

He is only in this position of authority because the mission has gone so poorly that a uniformed jackass like him is the closest thing to a leader that exists anymore.

Rhodes knows his flaws and shortcomings. He doesn’t pretend to be anything he’s not. He’s angry and bitter and frustrated, and all of that is exacerbated by waking up one morning to find that the last remaining officer above him is dead and now he’s the new boss.

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Can you blame him for wanting to shut the operation down? Can you blame him for unloading on the research team? Can you blame him for pushing them to show results?

You can blame him for his methods — every single one of his methods — but I doubt Rhodes thinks he’s a great guy to begin with. He knows he’s a piece of shit. He was thrust into leadership well after he stopped caring about this. He wants to stop more from dying. That’s selfish and unhelpful but I can’t blame the SOB one bit.

This is my defense of Joe Pilato, whose acting is often mocked as being the film’s weak point. This is wrong. (The film’s weak point is a brief reprise of “The Gonk” from Dawn of the Dead.)

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Pilato plays Rhodes as overwhelmingly desperate and on his last nerve. He doesn’t have the ability to think too far ahead or to find a better solution, but he knows he’s fucking done with this bullshit and dying in a God-damned hole is not going to benefit anybody.

When he suggests he and his remaining men might leave the researchers down here to rot, Dr. Logan asks him, “Where will you go, captain?”

It reminds me of a moment early in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49:

“Run away with me,” said Roseman when the coffee came.
“Where?” she asked. That shut him up.

He doesn’t have an answer. Voicing it was as far as he’d gotten.

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I’ve heard Pilato described as hammy. I don’t agree. I can’t agree. I’ve tried to view his performance through that lens specifically, and I can’t do it.

Rhodes is so well characterized that I believe him. I believe his swings between militaristic barks and slimy threats and unhinged outbursts. Every one of them is justified by who he is, why he’s here, and what he’s feeling. This is a man buried alive, trying to beat his way out from under a 14-mile tombstone. He’s not going to be reserved. He’s going to fight.

I get the feeling history has already made up its mind on Pilato. They’ll see an out-of-context clip and chuckle and move along, secure in the assumption that Day of the Dead is the bad one, because with acting like this, how could it not be?

But in context…within the rhythms and the reality of the film…in this situation, with this history, surrounded by these people…

It works. And it doesn’t just work. It’s fucking perfect.

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His opposite on the research team is Dr. Logan, who nobody in uniform calls Dr. Logan. To them, he’s Dr. Frankenstein. What may have started as a gentle nickname (but more likely started as mostly harmless ribbing) has become a dismissive label, a reason to not take the man seriously, to band together against him like the torch-wielding mob in the 1931 movie.

Logan is played by Richard Liberty, whose performance is also (and more understandably) described as cartoonish. I wouldn’t change a thing about it.

Liberty never stops acting. I’m not talking about his line delivery or his facial expressions or his body language; I’m talking about all of those things and more. Liberty seems to be acting with every molecule in his body. More than anybody else in this film — indeed, most films — he seems to inhabit the character. There are moments during which he rambles about barely connected topics, and we get the sense that there are even more tangents unspooling in his mind that aren’t making it to his mouth.

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Here’s the thing: I believe those things really are unspooling in his mind. He’s not just an actor pretending to say some things while leaving others unsaid. Liberty seems to have Logan’s brain in this movie, literally fractured, operating imperfectly like the mad scientist the man has become.

It’s a brilliant performance that I doubt will ever get the recognition it deserves on the grounds that it feels too broad. And yet, it’s meant to be too broad. It’s meant to be so broad as to cause concern. It’s meant to be so broad that it’s funny at the same time that it worries the hell out of you.

This man is genuinely insane, and he’s humanity’s last hope.

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Try acting that out without being broad. You might be able to do it, but you won’t be anywhere near as effective. The larger the comedy, the larger the tragedy it can conceal.

Somewhere in the past is the ghost of the real Dr. Logan, the one the government ordered underground to fix this mess. The brilliant scientist who might not be able to save the world but who at least stood a chance. The man whose eccentricities were quirky and adorable.

And now we have a man who has genuinely lost his mind. He’s still useful, but he has almost entirely disconnected himself from reality. Whereas Rhodes is driven to frustration, Logan is driven to madness. He fixates so intensely on the problem that he can’t see anything beyond it, not even sure why people would get upset that he was secretly experimenting on the corpse of Major Cooper or feeding the remains of Rhodes’ men to his “specimens.”

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Logan comes to dinner covered in viscera. He’s unshaven while the other men have no problem maintaining their appearance. His hair is a mess and his glasses are broken and he hardly sleeps. He records himself babbling nonsense into a small voice recorder for no apparent purpose, possibly unaware that he’s doing it at all.

He’s cartoony because cartoons are crazy and his mind is broken.

He is also, no doubt, thrilled on an intellectual level that he has the good fortune to study something that nobody in history has studied before: the reanimation of corpses. It’s uncharted territory. Sure, if he saves the world he’ll have his name attached to a cure, but even if he doesn’t…what a gift! To approach the unknowable secret between this world and the next, to study the possibility of shifting between them, to map the limits of what the human mind can take from one side to the other…

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While the rest in the bunker are kept awake by nightmares, Logan is kept awake by possibility.

Between the two groups is Sarah, technically a researcher but in practice more of a mediator. She is the voice of reason — at least when she’s allowed to speak — and she gives orders that the others only sometimes follows.

She pleads for understanding from both parties. She knows the researchers need to start producing results but she needs the soldiers to give them more time. She needs to keep the peace because neither side is willing to budge, so she keeps pushing each of them back to keep space between them.

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And there’s a third faction. Two friends we met in the beginning. John the pilot and Bill the radio operator. The two have adopted a philosophy of non-interference. They do their jobs and no more. They relocated to an old trailer in the caverns rather than stay in the designated living area. After missions they stroll quietly away and avoid whatever conflict between the two groups is inevitably going to flare up again.

Their position is one of neutrality. They don’t believe in what either side is doing; the soldiers are pricks and the researchers are ineffectual. They are under no illusion that they will get out of here alive. They can’t. They will die and nobody will even need to bury them, because they all buried themselves to begin with.

One side may win. The other side may win. Both sides might kill each other in the conflict. It doesn’t matter, because John and Bill have staked their claim and built themselves a home for whatever time they have left.

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Their lack of willingness to participate in anything beyond the bare necessities of their jobs first comes across as selfish, and maybe that’s true, to some degree. But when we see the rest of the bunker’s occupants at each other’s throats — even those technically on the same side — we start to understand that this is the only way to retain one’s sanity. It isn’t kill or be killed; it’s kill, be killed, or don’t get involved in the first place.

In severe contrast to the survivors we met in Dawn of the Dead, those grown ups who knew better than to dwell on slights real or perceived, the survivors in Day of the Dead seem to spend every moment just waiting for an excuse to strike, to berate, to argue.

This is why Sarah’s ability to hold herself together works against her. She is the only one in any position to broker peace, and peace will not be brokered.

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Nearly all of this is revealed — one piece at a time, like Johnny Cash building his Cadillac — in terse, clipped speech across rooms, between people who would gladly toss the other to a zombie if it would buy him a moment’s peace. It’s one of those rare horror films that unfolds almost entirely in dialogue. Not in action, not in spectacle, not in buckets of blood, but in words exchanged among those who can not and will not trust each other.

Though, please, let me be clear that the action and spectacle and buckets of blood are all fantastic, when we do get them.

For some reason, until this very review series, I remembered Dawn of the Dead as having zombies that looked like…zombies. In reality, though, they look like green people, just like Night of the Living Dead had zombies that looked like dirty people. It’s actually Day of the Dead that introduces the familiar rotting, shambling corpse to the series, and what an introduction.

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Tom Savini — returning after his practical-effects work on the previous film — outdoes himself in every regard here. There are moments that are so well done that I genuinely can’t figure out how they were achieved. (I won’t list them here because I don’t want anyone to tell me. The fact that the magic has held this long is significant to me.)

Other moments aren’t necessarily as impressive but are brilliantly executed and memorable. When Sarah has a nightmare about Miguel rolling over as a corpse, spilling his innards onto the floor, I buy it; seeing it happen with an actual corpse in Logan’s lab earlier stuck with me as well. There’s nothing complicated about it; it’s simple, well-executed horror.

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The zombies here look, for the first time, like monsters. They’re upsetting to look at. They’re gross. They clearly stink and leave trails of innards wherever they go. They’re scary in ways that they weren’t in the previous films, or perhaps to extremes that they weren’t in previous films.

I think part of the reason they have such impact is that they are kept distant for most of the movie. They aren’t beating against a window or a door; the arrangement of the bunker means there are always several layers of protection between the survivors and the monsters. If somebody encounters a zombie, in other words, it’s with the advance knowledge that they were going to encounter a zombie. And since nobody particularly wants to encounter a zombie, we spend long, long stretches of the film without them. Perhaps a distant howl will echo through the caves, but that’s it. They are safely off camera.

Which means when we do see them, they have greater impact. They register as a sharper threat. Each one of their appearances has weight.

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And, of course, we can’t bring up the zombies without finally bringing up Bub.

Bub is brilliant. I love, love, love Bub. There could be a Day of the Dead without Bub and it would probably still have been very good, but Bub is a fucking masterstroke.

As another character puts it, Bub is Dr. Logan’s “star pupil.” What he really is, however, is the only evidence in this trilogy that a zombie might be rehabilitated.

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In Night of the Living Dead, we saw that zombies had enough in the way of consciousness to solve very basic problems. Most notably, they used stones to smash the headlights on Ben’s truck when they couldn’t stand the light.

In Dawn of the Dead, we saw that zombies retained some degree of instinctive memory, causing (or at least allowing) them to shuffle along to the mall, a location with which they had positive associations in life.

Maybe you find these things interesting and maybe you don’t. It’s not much to work with, I agree. But Dr. Logan has spent more time studying zombies up close than either you or I have, and he’s spent most of that time working with Bub, attempting to pierce the barricade between life and death, reaching from this side of the veil to the other, and activating whatever memories and humanity he can find.

Bub, crucially, has been rendered docile. He may reach, but he doesn’t attack. Dr. Logan turns his back to him several times and never does Bub even consider grabbing at him. (I like to read this as accidental; Dr. Logan is so far out of his mind that he doesn’t think twice about turning his back to a zombie as he records his findings…he’s just lucky it’s Bub.) There’s evidence here that a zombie can be convinced — or perhaps conditioned — not to feed.

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That’s bullshit, obviously; we learn later that he’s rewarding Bub with human remains. What Dr. Logan has taught him isn’t that he shouldn’t eat people; Dr. Logan has taught him that if he lets people live, they will bring him more human meat than he’d have otherwise.

With Bub essentially neutralized as a threat, Dr. Logan is able to see what he can awaken in the zombie’s mind. Bub demonstrates superficial understanding of a shaving razor, of a paperback novel, of a telephone. With some prompting and some patience he’s able to operate a cassette player. When Rhodes walks into the room, he instinctively salutes.

It’s a chilling moment and one of my favorites in the series. I understand Dr. Logan’s excitement and why he’d — thoroughly failing to read the room — ask Rhodes to “return the salute and see what he does.” And I understand Rhodes’ reluctance to do so on every conceivable level. It’s a revelation that shocks both sides of the conflict in different ways.

I absolutely fucking love it.

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And yet I hate Land of the Dead.

Alright, yes, this is a tangent, but not much of one. Tied for the title of “thing I hate most about Land of the Dead” is the fact that zombies are shown using and understanding — at least on some instinctive level — tools, from musical instruments to automatic rifles. (It’s tied with everything else that happens in Land of the Dead.) And that might seem unfair considering that in my favorite film, in a sequence I adore, we learn that this is possible.

The difference is that Dr. Logan has spent untold hours working directly with one specimen to get him to barely drag a shaving razor across his rotten face. In Land of the Dead, it just happens. And once it does, the zombies start instinctively strategizing. (Which is even more of a contradiction than the phrase at first seems.)

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Dr. Logan has established that zombies, perhaps, could eventually rediscover some of this on their own, but if this is as far as Bub gets with ‘round-the-clock coaching, I don’t buy that the zombies in Land of the Dead are able to organize and execute a coordinated attack on a city of survivors.

Lest this become a rant about Land of the Dead, though, let’s get back to a movie that’s actually good. (Don’t worry; if I ever cover Romero’s second Dead trilogy, you will get a rant about Land of the Dead.)

One of this movie’s best moments is the reveal that Bub actually cared about Dr. Logan. It’s an interesting double twist. First we see Bub being docile, which is explained by Dr. Logan feeding him human remains, which itself is then overturned as the cause of Bub’s docility by the fact that he howls in anguish upon finding Dr. Logan dead.

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Dr. Logan tried to bring back Bub’s humanity. In death, that’s exactly what he did.

It’s a moment of phenomenal zombie acting by Sherman Howard, whose work as Bub in this film is criminally underappreciated.

Dr. Logan is executed by Rhodes when the latter finds out that the former has been using his dead friends as Beggin’ Strips. It’s part of a crisis that would take too long to describe, but a summary is important: While corralling specimens for Dr. Logan, two more soldiers are killed and a third — Miguel — is bitten in the arm.

Miguel runs in a panic through the caverns and coincidentally ends up near John and Bill’s trailer. They come out to see what the hubbub is about and see Sarah chasing him down. She knocks him out with a stone and they get to work on an experiment that we’ve all certainly been wondering about since the first film: Does amputation stop the spread of infection?

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She cuts off his arm, ties a tourniquet, and cauterizes the wound. She argues with Rhodes to wait and see if he recovers. We wait and see as well, but we never get an answer. Miguel is clearly suffering, but he doesn’t actually turn before the film ends. The question remains unresolved. (At least until the Living Dead novel, which definitively states that it does not work; the infection, somehow, is immediate and permanent.)

The crisis — the loss of his men, the transgressions of Dr. Frankenstein, the constant pleading from Sarah to give them more while he has to make due with less — is Rhodes’ breaking point. He takes Fisher down to the trailer and tells John to fly him and his men the Hell away from here. If he refuses, he’ll kill Fisher.

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John refuses.

He kills Fisher.

It’s a horrendous moment of cold-blooded cruelty. Fisher, a scientist who never caused anybody harm, who isn’t at the center of this conflict, and who has brains and experience that may well be irreplaceable at this point, is killed only so Rhodes can prove that he isn’t fucking around.

Rhodes forces Sarah and Bill into the zombie corral as well, just to be done with them. He can’t kill John — indeed he prevents his men from shooting him when the man fights back — because he’s the only pilot, but he has no reason to keep anybody else around.

Sarah and Bill fight their way through the caverns and John fights his way through Rhodes and his men. The three — who are now our heroes — meet up, escape topside, and make it to the helicopter…but we’ll check back in with them later.

There’s one thing I still cannot figure out about the ending of Day of the Dead.

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Miguel, bitten, sweating, barely staying conscious through the pain, uses the bunker’s main elevator to get back to the surface. He opens the gates keeping the zombies at bay, and he (almost certainly intentionally) lures them back to the elevator. He lies down and the zombies dig into him.

As they do, he lowers the elevator, letting the zombies into the facility. They overrun it and kill each of the soldiers, one by one, with the goriest death being saved for Rhodes. (After Bub shoots him, natch.)

But what on Earth is Miguel doing?

I honestly don’t get this part and I’m willing to be convinced of anything you believe, so let me know in the comments.

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All of it feels deliberate. Miguel is executing a plan, even if it’s one he’s making up on the fly. He is going to the surface, luring the zombies to the elevator, and letting them into the bunker on purpose. Right?

He sacrifices himself in a way that kills the bad guys but leaves Sarah, John, and Bill free to escape. This was his goal. Right?

I don’t know, because he shouldn’t — he can’t — have any way of knowing what’s going on with these other characters. He knows Rhodes is an asshole and Sarah isn’t, but he doesn’t know that letting the zombies into the facility will kill Rhodes and save Sarah.

Was it some slow-acting zombie instinct that got him to let the zombies into the bunker before he fully became one himself? Did he just want everybody to die, no matter who they were or what his relationship with them was, because he felt that that was better than continuing to live like this?

What the Hell is he doing?

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Anyway, the point is, our three heroes make it to the helicopter and take off, and Romero gives us an even more uplifting ending than he did in the previous film: They don’t just fly off into the sky with a shrug; we see that they’ve made it to an island, somewhere, and are safe. They’re resting. Fishing. Living.

It’s a nice escalation of the previous films that does not continue through Romero’s next three.

The first film had one character survive a zombie onslaught. The second film had two. The third, this one, has three. The first film was clear about its ending being tragic. The second film was vague about the tragedy of its ending. The third film ends with happiness.

And yet — and yet! — Day of the Dead still feels so bleak.

Why is that? Though three characters in this film definitively make it to safety and carve out a new life for themselves, everything feels so…over.

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I think it’s because there’s so little left to hope for. These three people could be the final three people. This might, in every sense of the phrase, be The End. They can live the rest of their lives as carefree and as happily as they like; it’s still the final chapter. The book on humanity will be closed forever.

When Sarah first visits John and Bill at their trailer, John gives a little speech about the records and documents the government has stored in this underground facility, before it became the last bastion of hope for the entire human race.

“They got the books and the records of the top 500 companies,” he tells her. “They got the Defense Department budget down here, and they got the negative for all your favorite movies. They got microfilm with tax returns and newspaper stories. They got immigration records, census reports, and they got official accounts of all the wars and plane crashes and volcano eruptions and earthquakes and fires and floods and all the other disasters that interrupted the flow of things in the good old U.S. of A.”

And then later, much later, in their conversation, John turns his attention to the future.

“We could start over, start fresh, get some babies,” he says, “and teach them, Sarah, teach them never to come over here and dig these records out.”

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It’s not the possibility of repopulation. It’s not the possibility of starting over. It’s not the possibility of doing things right the second time.

It’s leaving human civilization where it fell. Beneath a tombstone with an epitaph on it that nobody’s gonna bother to read.

The important thing isn’t that there could potentially be another day, another night, another dawn. What’s important is that it’s over. It’s that mankind will never pen another word, start another war, reestablish control over a planet that was only ever poorer for their presence.

People won’t be shooting each other over their race or smashing their way into buildings to take what isn’t theirs or breaking alliances because one side isn’t benefiting as much as the other.

Day of the Dead (1985)

They could have babies. They could not. That isn’t what’s important. What’s important, to the point of it being made explicit, is that any babies they do have will be forbidden to go anywhere near what they left behind.

It’s better to be out here, wherever this is, living simply, living quietly, living until nobody is living anymore.

That’s when there will finally be peace.

Happy Halloween.

Day of the Dead (1985)

5 thoughts on “Trilogy of Terror: Day of the Dead (1985)”

  1. Great Trilogy of Terror pieces this year, Phil.
    I too always had considered “Day” to be the “worst” of the original Dead trilogy, and for all the reasons you mention. But after reading your piece on “Dawn”, i figured i’d give “Day” another watch, and i think i’ve come around to your position that “Day” is the best.
    The “overacting” — and it certainly can be argued that both Rhodes and the Doctor are not just chewing the scenery, but outright devouring it — strangely doesn’t seem out of place once you realize that both of them are long past the point of no return, sanity-wise.
    As for Miguel — we see that he’s already lost it long before he’s bitten, with the opening mission being the straw that finally broke him. Then he’s bit, he loses his arm, loses his girl, and is very cognizant of the fact that not only is he slowly dying, but he’s going to become a zombie like all the rest before him. I read his actions as someone who is so utterly lost, so beyond hope — not just for himself, but for all of humanity — that his last conscious decision, being made in the throes of delirium and madness, is that everything needs to end so he’s going to make sure it ends. It’s like the extreme version of John’s though about leaving everything buried — just that Miguel’s hopelessness extends that line of thought to a “logical” conclusion: it’s not just the _works_ of mankind that need to stay buried, it’s all of mankind itself.
    And somehow, despite this movie having the only real happy ending of the three, it is the ending that still feels the most bleak. Amazing how it pulls that off when the final scene is literally the sort of paradise future that plenty of us would love — on a peaceful beach, without a care in the world.

  2. They resent her for retaining full control of her emotions, her rationality, and her faculties, and Cardille sells that conflict perfectly…that awareness that things would be easier — maybe not better, certainly not safer, but easier — if she just let herself fucking…fall…apart.

    Oh. Oh… Oh. I have feels now. The Trump Era is not exactly a zombie apocalypse, but I have so much empathy for “Things would be easier if I could just fall apart”.

  3. I’m glad these reviews gave me a push to finally watch these movies. The only Romero movie I had seen before these was Monkey Shines, and from just these four films I’m convinced he was a genius.

    One thing that impresses me is the continuity across these films – not necessarily of action, but of Romero’s interest. Night ends with the Possum Holler Brigade; and Dawn picks up with a little more ground troops organization. Dawn begins with desertion; Day follows what might have happened to who–in the most general, gun-toting terms–they left behind. The movies become variations on a theme, and come across to me as different questions that Romero found himself left with after each film.

    But what’s more–and I forgot to mention this in my last comment–we pick up a thread here that Romero hints at in Dawn: crowd control. The intro shots of the mall in Dawn, the entrance and exit signs, signalled to me that the culturally-fertile agora had, over the centuries, become more of a crowd-control device. Unless there’s a slow-moving family in front of me, I keep to the right in a mall. No one’s ever told me to do this, but it’s simply What One Does.

    And here Romero gives us a scientist trying to do research on controlling zombies. But he’s faced with the most persistent drawback of any kind of scientific experiment: lab conditions aren’t the real world. He’s coming at it from the individual level; but zombies tend to form groups in these movies (if only because there are so few humans left).

    And I hate to disagree with you, but I do love to engage with your thoughts, so I’ll disagree with you: Dawn already gave us a couple of hints about rehabilitation. Maybe I was completely making this up, but in the sequence where the zombies finally overrun the mall, wasn’t there one woman who had tried on some new clothes? At any rate, there was that one dead guy who made a consumer choice between which gun he liked better. To me, that the zombies came there out of an instinct of products rather than an instinct of place ups whatever messages you want to pull from both the heroes and the bikers coming there for the same reason.

    You’ve convinced me to give Pilota’s acting a pass, with the exception of one scene: when he shrieks at the crowd of zombies reaching out to him. That pulled me out of the scene because all I could think about was how much that scream felt like it belonged in a Nightmare on Elm Street sequel.

    Dr. Logan doesn’t read as insane to me. I read this review before watching Day, so I was expecting him to be a little more nutty. Your assessment of Liberty inhabiting the role to the extent that we are convinced of his mind generating directions of thought too quick for his tongue is spot-on. But when he finally comes to the mess hall, he snaps back to being in control of himself and gives as good as he gets to Rhodes.*

    And the way he gives, by outtalking Rhodes (I think one of the other soldiers comments on that later as a regular thing), cemented the character for me. Here’s a guy who has managed to make a whole career out of whatever science he was doing before. (Brain surgery? Autopsies?) For years, the grant money and government projects just kept coming in, and that meant whatever he was doing must have worked. But like athletes having “lucky socks” or whatever, bad habits can accrete this way. Logan’s used to being the smartest, oldest, most powerful guy anywhere he goes; he’s used to having an ace card of an argument up his sleeve. And who among his junior scientists would have pushed back if it meant not getting a letter of recommendation? When he says “Where will you go?”, he puts a whole career history into the delivery.

    I don’t think he’s insane; I think he got lost. I think this is his first funded project with no deadlines, no defined deliverables, and no stakes. That is, he’s legitimately in a situation where he can run exploratory research, and when he’s done, yell out “We’re gonna need another Timmy!” He’s lost in the possibilities, and they’re endlessly, like you say, unspooling.

    I’ll finish my Saturday Night Novel by taking a whack at Miguel (hey, everyone else in the movie did). I’ll go with what we know about Miguel and go from there. When we meet him, he’s been running himself ragged. Sarah’s ability to keep her shit together is gnawing at him, and he’s trying to prove himself by pushing himself. He chafes at Sarah giving him morphine (not seeing her sneak whatever pills those are on her way to the water fountain). Sarah dumps him, one of Rhodes’s favorite him is openly racist to him, and thanks to an overused piece of leather, a zombie breaks free of his grasp. He knows he’s fucked whether the bite takes him or Rhodes shoots him. If it gets through his banged-up head, he knows that Sarah’s going to get more morphine to shoot him up with, and that even she doesn’t think he’ll make it. Then John leaves him for dead too. To the best of his knowledge, everyone went back to the main part of the base.

    That’s got to feed into him feeling like everyone thinks he’s the weakest link, right? So fuck ’em, right? I don’t think he knew anything else that was going on after John leaves, and I don’t think he had any reason to care whether they lived or died. He knew the elevator was one of only two ways out, and so he cut some wires to make sure whoever tried to leave would be slowed down, leaving enough time for him to gather a group of zombies. He was praying he’d time it right – he had no way of knowing the remote would work when he pressed the button.

    So maybe it’s “fuck ’em”, or maybe it’s to prove himself strong, if only to himself, or to God. Before he carries out his plan–and while he’s carrying it out–he’s either grabbing or kissing his St. Michael medallion. This can’t be accidental, and though I’m not entirely sure how Romero wants us to connect St. Michael with Miguel’s plan, I read it as Miguel carrying out a duty. Maybe he sees himself as carrying out the prayer of St. Michael, and tries to “thrust into hell Satan, and all the evil spirits, who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls”.

    So now that I’ve explained Miguel, tell me why in the fuck does one of those bikers in Dawn *sit back down* in the blood pressure chair while surrounded by zombies?

    *I’ll defend Rhodes here. In the “where will you go?” exchange between the two, I took Rhodes’s speechlessness as meaning that the answer was so obvious he never thought he would need to say it out loud: anywhere but here, where we know we’re dying.

    1. I often felt like Romero was trying to hint that the zombies were a kind of transitional phase in a transformation into some kind of post-mortal life, and given enough time, they might eventually reach a point where they could reestablish some kind of civilization.

  4. I always thought the scene where Sarah amputates Miguel’s arm to be really powerful. Once her new group have seen off the soldiers, she finally let’s her barriers down and collapses into John.
    It takes ages to find the heroes in this film. At first you think its Sarah, the Doc and her scientist buddy. But then we see that they are just hamsters on a wheel going nowhere.
    It’s this scene where John and Bill are finally forced to pick a side that the heroes show their faces.

    I love the scene where John explains to Sarah that the bunker is filled with all of the knowledge of humanity, to preserve that knowledge against calamity. But there will be nobody coming to read it all.

    And this is the riddle of the ending, a theme that exists through the whole movie from the very intro. Sarah crosses off a day on her calendar.
    We can be assured that until the moment she dies, someone at least will be concerned with keeping track of what day it is.

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