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)

Trilogy of Terror: Dawn of the Dead (1978)

I spoke last week about how I didn’t want to watch Night of the Living Dead because I knew it would scare the hell out of me. Much later, when I learned about Dawn of the Dead, I didn’t want to watch that, either. This time, it was because I knew it couldn’t possibly live up to its potential.

Across the entire series, this is the film I most often heard spoken about as “the best one,” but that in itself meant little to me. What made it seem to have so much potential in my mind was its setting; Dawn of the Dead is a zombie movie set in a shopping mall.

From the moment I learned that fact, I braced myself for disappointment. It was such a perfect concept that any execution would have to be flawed. One hears “zombies in a shopping mall” and the mind races. The imagination goes wild. The movie that existed in my head, even if it were just a series of disconnected moments, would have to be better than anything one person with some cameras could actually achieve.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

I was wrong; I think we can all agree on that, but before we discuss the many ways in which I was wrong, let’s take a moment to discuss why the concept felt so perfect to begin with.

I grew up — as I’m sure many people reading this did — with shopping malls. They weren’t a novelty to me; they were born well before I was. They were a natural and organic concept. People liked buying things. At a mall, they could buy everything.

Some of my earliest memories were formed at malls. I remember shopping for new clothes there before the start of the new school year. I remember being told I could pick a toy as long as it was under $5, which of course limited me but there were so many toys I didn’t even realize it. I remember dogs in the pet store pressing their wet noses against the glass in the hopes that somebody would take them home along with the crock pot, stereo, and sneakers they were already carrying.

I remember the music. The bright lights. The smell of neutrality.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

For me, “the mall” referred to the Hamilton Mall in Mays Landing, New Jersey. I was also within driving distance of the Ocean County Mall in Toms River, but that one wasn’t as good. I understood already that malls weren’t created equal.

I got older. Not willingly, but it happened. My friends and I got driver’s licenses. All of us, I know, drove to the Hamilton Mall as one of our big first trips. It was a drive of around half an hour, for context, but when you first get your driver’s license, that’s a pilgrimage.

Of course we went to the mall. Why would we not have? Everything was there. If we wanted a CD, it was there. If we wanted a video game, it was there. If we wanted a new shirt or an action figure or a book, it was there. And you might as well go on an empty stomach, because the food court had anything you could want. You didn’t even have to agree on where to eat; everybody could load up on whatever they were in the mood for and you’d all sit down together at a table in the middle of it all, the sounds of shopping echoing all around you.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

It was, counterintuitively, soothing. I’d struggle to explain why, especially as an introvert who almost uniformly dislikes crowds. What was it that kept me coming back? Or, no, that’s not the right question. Let’s ask instead, what made me want to be there?

I can’t answer that. I don’t know if Romero can, either, at least not with an easy, digestible sentence or two. Instead, he illustrates and explores the concept simply by having the zombies flock there. Sure, there are survivors inside, but that’s not what draws them to the building.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

“They’re after the place,” one character observes. “They don’t know why. They just remember. Remember that they want to be in here.”

Later, when the mall is swarmed by living people, that same character echoes his earlier sentiment, and not accidentally.

“They’re after the place,” he says again. “They don’t care about us.”

The mall is, or at least was, soothing to the consumerist soul. To children raised on TV, to those who were born listening to sales pitches, to those who watched cartoons that were actually commercials and commercials that were actually cartoons, to those who were convinced that having more stuff better stuff lots of stuff was evidence that you’d done well.

Be the first one on your block to have X. Make your friends jealous with Y. Supplies are limited.

We fucking love stuff.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Malls are full of stuff. I used to dream — literally dream — about being locked in one after everybody went home. About having full run of the arcade. About filling up on candy. About having everything to my young self, even though something like 90% of it would have had no meaning to me and genuinely wouldn’t have interested me on its own merits, I’d have it, at least for a while, and that would be great.

So let’s stick some survivors in there. Let’s stick some zombies in there as well. Let’s see what happens.

Miraculously, what happens is one those rare films that’s every bit as good as its excellent premise. But let me disappoint you: of Romero’s first three Dead films, Dawn of the Dead is my least favorite.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

This speaks to no particular shortcoming in the film; it’s just that I think Night of the Living Dead is the better movie, and Day of the Dead is the one that I enjoy the most. Dawn of the Dead would be the best zombie movie I’ve ever seen if it weren’t sandwiched by the only two better zombie movies I’ve ever seen.

If I have a real complaint, it’s the length of the film. The theatrical cut tops two hours, and there’s an extended cut that tops two and a half. Part of me wants to say that it would be a shame to lose any of the material, and, well, that part of me is correct. But another part of me realizes that sitting down to watch Dawn of the Dead is an commitment. I’ll need to set aside my evening for it. I can pop the other two movies in whenever I’m in the mood. Dawn of the Dead, though, demands attention and it demands it for a longer stretch. Does that make it worse? Of course not. But it does mean that I’m reaching for it less often.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

If I’d cut anything, it would have to be before the survivors get to the mall. That leaves, basically, the newsroom sequence and the SWAT sequence. Which, of course, means it’s the SWAT sequence I’d cut.

The newsroom sequence is masterful and efficient. It says everything it needs to say quickly, introduces two characters we’ll get to know later, and feeds us directly into the main story. The SWAT sequence is the opposite. It’s messy. It’s less interesting. It spends more time saying far less.

First, let’s focus on the newsroom, which is our thematic branching-off point from Night of the Living Dead.

This film was made and takes place 10 years later, but not quite in the same continuity. The zombie outbreak happened in that one, and the zombie outbreak happened a decade later in this one. We can assume that a version of this story happened then, and a version of that story is happening now, with Ben and Barbra and the Coopers and Tom and Judy huddled around a TV, watching this broadcast, trying to figure out which of the rescue stations scrolling across the screen is nearest.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

On this side of the screen, however, we learn that as many as half of the rescue stations are inoperative. We can use our imaginations as to why, and that works, I believe, far better than seeing them possibly could.

Fran, one of the producers on the broadcast, orders that the entire list be taken down. Better that than send people to their deaths. The director demands they stay up, reasoning that people will stop watching if they stop running the info. It’s quick, simple, and efficient satire. Fran leaves with her boyfriend Stephen, who may be able to fly them to Canada in the station’s helicopter. (We won’t actually get to see how the outbreak is affecting, but the book The Living Dead explores it for those interested.)

The entire newsroom sequence lasts just a few minutes, but its recognizable chaos hits hard. It’s the collapse of structure, broadcast live to people whose entire world is falling apart. The people watching have turned to the news for explanation, for authority, for the reassurance that somebody knows what’s happening. We see that the people they turn to do not know what’s happening, and their lies are breaking down in real time.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

If you think there’s more to explore in this newsroom, you aren’t wrong; it’s explored for long stretches in The Living Dead, which dedicates long sections to that novel’s version of this scene. It’s a good read, and those sections of the book are probably my favorite. But I’m glad they’re in the book and not the film, because the film is not about this. The film is about what happens after this.

Then we have the SWAT section, which feels a bit more obviously manufactured to me. One of the men on the SWAT team is a racist. We know he’s a racist because every other word is a slur. He gloats openly about how excited he is to shoot people who don’t look like him. Then he starts shooting people who don’t look like him.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

There’s more going on than that, but not much. He gets shot by another member of the SWAT team, who we soon learn is Peter, played by Ken Foree. Peter is joined by Roger, who does not mind that Peter shot the racist.

Peter and Roger are not racist and don’t like racists.

Racism sucks, I agree whole-fucking-heartedly, but we already had an entire film that told us that. Doing it again — far more clumsily and far less interestingly — isn’t really necessary.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

I suspect the SWAT section was filmed for one of two reasons. The first, and probably more likely, is that it gave us a chance to get to know Roger and Peter. I don’t think that’s necessary, as we’ll be getting to know each of the characters, these two included, once they all meet up. What’s more, I don’t think we learn anything here that we don’t more or less immediately learn again there.

The other possibility is that it was filmed to give us a view of the “larger world” dealing with the outbreak. I’m really not a fan of that. I like each of these stories being as isolated as possible, with only glimpses of what’s happening elsewhere, ideally through a radio or television broadcast. As with the inoperable rescue stations, it’s better to imagine the horror.

In fact, the film will prove this not much later, when a scene takes place in an abandoned building, notes scrawled on the walls, never to be found by the people meant to see them. Nobody comments on them. They don’t need to. Our imaginations are already working wonders.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Roger invites Peter to join him and Stephen in the helicopter, and that’s necessary to see only if you decide it’s necessary. In Night of the Living Dead, we followed one character to the film’s main setting. There were many others, all of whom had their own stories that led them there, but we only followed one.

Here, we follow four, and I don’t know if we need to do that. We could instead follow Fran to the roof where her boyfriend steals the helicopter. A mall would (and does) draw more than a couple of people’s attention, so have Peter and Roger show up there later, or already be there.

Or cut the SWAT section and have Roger pull up in the police car with Peter, just as we see here. He still needs to introduce Peter to the other characters as it is, so I don’t think we need to see either of them introduced in the apartment raid.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

But that’s me complaining about one of the only sequences that doesn’t entirely work for me. Once they take off, the film only gets better. We even get to see the ending of Night of the Living Dead from above, with the good ol’ boys carelessly shooting anything that moves.

In case you thought I read too much into the selection of extras in the previous film, they’re specifically referred to as rednecks here. Oh, and we see them drinking and laughing and one of them accidentally shoots another in the head. So, y’know, sorry for jumping to conclusions. There are very fine people on both sides.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

But who cares about that? It’s all preamble. We’re here for the shopping mall, especially this one, with a helipad on top of it.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

The four land here because they know the mall will contain supplies they’ll need, but they soon realize there might not be a reason for them to keep moving at all. Like I said, malls have everything.

It’s here that they decide to stay. Pilot Stephen, newswoman Fran, soldier Peter, and hotshot Roger. It’s here, as we know, that tensions will build. And it’s here, inevitably, that these mismatched survivors will turn out to be bigger threats to each other than the zombies are.

We know all of this.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Which is why it’s so surprising, impressive, and memorable that it’s wrong.

In the very film after he established that people under duress will fail to work together toward the common good, focusing on their own survival and concerns ahead of anyone else’s, Romero establishes that this does not actually have to be the case. It will be the case if you aren’t vigilant, and no other group of survivors in the other five films manages to do it, but in Dawn of the Dead, that’s what we see. We see survivors who understand that they are stronger as a group, and whatever preconceptions or prejudices they may have about each other need to be put aside.

And that’s that. It really is that easy. Tensions will be high, and you’ll need to defuse them. Insults will be tossed around, and you’ll need to ignore them. Mistakes will be made, and you’ll need to forgive them.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Those are the rules. There’s no room for exceptions. You grow up and you stay grown up or every last one of you is fucked.

On some level, each of them understands this innately. Thank Christ for that.

The film even tests and then reinforces their willingness to let go of perceived or actual slights many times. It’s not an accident on Romero’s part; it’s a statement.

Soon after they take flight, they land the helicopter to gas it up. Each of the four pokes around the hangar area to see what they can find. They find zombies, of course. That’s okay.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Stephen proves himself to be a poor shot. He shoots zombies multiple times, but they don’t go down. Roger, evidently an accomplished marksman, knocks Stephen’s gun out of the way. He takes a shot instead and the zombie goes down with a single bullet to the head.

It happens several times. Roger is showing off. It might be a bit much to say he’s treating it like a game, but it’s clear he knows he’s the winner.

Stephen, as a lesser man or in a lesser film, would get upset. He’d push back. He’d squabble. As they argued, some zombies would draw nearer. Too near. It’s too early in the film for a major character to get bitten but they’d at least have a scare. Roger would punch him in the eye for putting them in danger. Stephen would seethe and later try to even the score…

But that doesn’t happen.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Stephen makes a face to express that he isn’t exactly thrilled about being outperformed, but that’s it. Roger is a better shot. Stephen is lousy with a gun. In this respect, one man is more skilled than the other man. Both being adults, they leave it at that. And far from seething, we see Stephen later in the film practicing his marksmanship on mall mannequins. This experience isn’t an excuse to feel threatened; it’s a reason to grow.

Okay, yes, Stephen and Roger are already friends. I admit, that would cause them to cut each other some slack and trust each other more than they usually would.

Which is why it’s great that Stephen almost immediately afterward finds himself in conflict with Peter, the stranger in the group.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Stephen’s intentions are good. He sees a zombie closing in on Peter, who was investigating a small building. From his perspective, he shot a monster who could potentially have killed one of the group.

Something very different happened from Peter’s perspective: Stephen, who has little to no idea of how to handle a gun, pointed it in Peter’s direction. Whatever the man’s intentions, he could have killed him.
Peter storms toward Stephen. He aims his gun directly at him.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

“You never aim a gun at anyone, mister,” he says firmly. “It’s scary. Isn’t it?”

And that’s it. Message delivered, message received. (Message emphasized a bit later in the helicopter, sure, but you get the idea.)

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

It doesn’t matter who started it. It doesn’t matter who’s right. It doesn’t matter if they’re even. The conflict is behind them and if they’re going to get through this at all, the conflict needs to stay behind them.

They both know it. They all know it. And it stays behind them.

It feels miraculous, and it’s just human beings behaving like actual, decent people. Maybe that is a miracle.

Additional conflicts within the group are raised as they get to know each other.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Fran is upset that the rest of them essentially decided that they wouldn’t go to Canada after all without consulting her. She’s upset again later when they learn she’s pregnant and have a conversation about abortion. She gets angry with Stephen for taking her gun, leaving her defenseless when a zombie gets into their safe room.

Fran is at the center of each of these conflicts, and any of them could have turned into shouting matches, thrown punches, threats to be fulfilled later.

None of them do.

They talk. Like people. Like adults. Like a team. At one point she mentions she’d like to learn to fly the helicopter, in case anything happens to Stephen. He doesn’t take this as a threat. He doesn’t see this as a way of losing the only actual power he wields within the group. He teaches her to fly the helicopter, because that was a very good point and the group is glad she made it.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

And then, much later, when Roger is bitten, he keeps helping. He doesn’t stop. He doesn’t plead for sympathy. He doesn’t want or allow special treatment.

He is going to die. There is no other way this ends. Anything he accomplishes from this point forward is for the good of the others; he will not benefit from any of it.

“There’s a lot to get done before you can afford to lose me,” he says. And that’s it. He keeps going.

He has to. The group needs to survive, even if he’ll no longer be part of it. He’ll die an adult.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Stephen, Fran, Peter, and Roger build a small pocket of humanity that actually functions. Whereas the group from Night of the Living Dead would have been lucky just to see sunrise, this group prospers. They are not reduced to huddling fearfully and eating rations until help comes.

Instead, they scout the mall for supplies. They learn the layout of the ductwork that allows them to move around safely. They wall up the entrance to their safe room in case looters come through. They hotwire trucks and use them to barricade the entrances. They kill every last zombie that is already inside. They bring them to a refrigerated room so that they won’t rot and cause further problems.

They actively make their situation better, and they do so carefully and with forethought.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Their safe room becomes a home. Not just metaphorically, but in a physical sense. They furnish it. They lay down carpet. They hang art and a dartboard. They create kitchen areas and sleeping areas and recreation areas. They treat themselves to an expensive Bang & Olufsen sound system.

They find a TV, of course, and they later upgrade it to a nicer, color one. They watch emergency broadcasts. Desperate hosts and hopeless scientists. Technicians barely keeping the broadcast alive jeering and interjecting from off camera as the nearest thing anyone has to a specialist shouts over them that mankind’s run is as good as over.

The reality has flipped. On that side of the screen, chaos reigns. On the viewer’s side — at least here, at least now — there’s safety.

Civilization collapses as this group successfully builds a new one of its own.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

This gives Dawn of the Dead a completely different tone. They aren’t at each other’s throats. They laugh. They listen to each other. They help each other, without exception.

And because they treat each other like people, because they consistently do the right thing for the good of the group, they get to have something no survivors in the series get to have: fun.

They do everything — literally every last thing — I used to dream about doing in that mall after hours. They fill up massive bags of candy. They gather up any clothes and toys and food that looks good. They drive one of the cars around. They play arcade games.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

The latter actually has a bit of weight, as Roger plays a racing game that ends when, in a moment of carelessness, he lets his vehicle crash. It blows up. You see his face reflected in the screen as he watches the explosion animate again and again. He fucked up, and now it’s over…

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

It’s a game, though; he inserts another quarter and he gets another chance. He’s happy for that opportunity.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

In real life, of course, he gets no second chance. Prior to the end of the film, Roger being bitten is the only time they don’t have the upper hand, and it hits hard. Of course it does. Until this point, and for a long time afterward, this is working. The previous film suggested universal fucked-ness but this one has taken great pains to show us that it doesn’t need to be that way, not everywhere.

Gravity reasserts itself here. Not permanently and not unilaterally, but enough that it’s sobering.

It happens while he and Peter are barricading the mall with trucks. Hotshot Roger is flooded with adrenaline. He’s showboating and goofing around. Maybe the fact that long-term security is so easily within their grasp makes him careless. I don’t know, but he lets his reckless side come out. He stops closing doors behind him. He stops paying attention to his surroundings. He takes needless risks to fuck around with the zombies that outnumber them massively.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

At one point, riding in the same vehicle, Peter tells him to get his shit together. He already had to save Roger’s ass once; the next time he might not be able to. Peter tells him to get his head on straight. Roger agrees.

But Roger forgot his bag of tools.

Without them he can’t hotwire the next truck. They have to turn around. He has to cross from one truck to another one more time. One more time than was planned. He gets his tools, and gets a bite taken out of him as well. Just like that, it’s as good as over for him.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

He doesn’t want to dwell. Why would he? He did this to himself. He was warned, explicitly, that his behavior was putting them at risk. He’s bitten. Fuck it. He won’t hide it or sugarcoat it but he’s sure as shit not going to stop helping. Not going to change the plan. Not going to ask to be taken to safety.

This is it. He sees that he’s already died for the sake of the mission; he might as well finish it.

It’s rough. Roger’s a good guy. He had the biggest smile. He had the most fun. He’s the one who brought Peter into the mix. He’s the common thread that allowed everyone else to give each other a chance.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

He hangs on as long as he can. They bandage him up. They give him morphine. When he can no longer walk, they wheel him around. He’s still part of the group, he’s still part of the team, he’s still a friend, even if he isn’t going to see where they end up.

In Night of the Living Dead, both Johnny and Karen reanimate, but we don’t see the process. The Coopers also “wake up” after death, but we see essentially nothing of what actually happens to a person as they shift from living to dead to living dead.

With Roger, we see all of it. From the pain in his eyes to the sweat to the nightmares to his pallor, we watch, over the course of several days, as a character we got to know becomes a zombie. As a man becomes a monster, despite his best attempts not to.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

As he’s close to death, he tells Peter that he’s going to fight it. He may not live, but maybe he can die.

“I’m going to try not to come back,” he says. It probably won’t work, but it’s not like there are other options.

His force of will is not enough. He comes back. Peter grants him rest.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Roger is buried the only way they can do so decently: in an indoor planter next to a J.C. Penney, surrounded by plastic trees.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

The absurdity of the situation only makes it sadder.

And yet — and yet! — even then, even after one of them is dead, even after their already tiny group shrinks by 25%, even when reality has made its way to them through the barricades and the locked doors, they’re okay.

They still function as a group. They still care about each other and work together.

The situation has said clearly to them, “Any one of you could die next.” They each respond, in turn, “So fucking what?” And they do their best to keep living, as distinct from surviving.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

There’s a scene in which Peter prepares a romantic dinner for Stephen and Fran. He doesn’t even wish to join them. He does it because it’s a nice thing to do for other people and he leaves them to their privacy.

He takes his own bottle of champagne to the planter in which Roger is buried, and that’s where he spends his night.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

He’s giving them what they need. They’re giving him what he needs. As the world outside passes the point of no return, these three have earned a quiet night. They’ve earned a quiet night because they’ve allowed their nights to be quiet, free of conflict, fortified with the understanding that they are in this together.

They have been tested in every way, and they have passed.

Which means the danger must come from outside. It does.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

The biker gang, if I’m to be honest, is a bit too evil for evil’s sake. They serve a necessary purpose, and I understand and acknowledge that. But in a film with such strong characterization almost everywhere else, a bunch of hooting idiots on motorcycles feels like a big step in the wrong direction.

In a sense, I get it. The world is Hell. If these clowns survive out there, it’s because they aren’t taking any shit, they’re shooting first, and they’re sufficiently armed to make up for any lack of training.

But they feel a bit too shallow to me, as though they don’t exist beyond their purpose in the plot. Sheriff McClelland in the first film didn’t technically get much characterization either, but we learned everything we needed to know about who he was, what he was doing, and why it mattered.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Here…well, maybe that’s still the case. Maybe the answer is that these are a bunch of bozos on motorcycles and that’s that. Maybe the answer is that life in this catastrophe has either stripped them entirely down to their base instincts or that they never had much personality beyond their base instincts to begin with, which is how they managed to survive.

But even that doesn’t feel quite right. They take too much pleasure in what they’re doing for that to be the case. They smash pies into zombies’ faces. They play with the blood pressure tester. They laugh and have fun. Our heroes laughed and had fun, too. Maybe that’s the point, but it isn’t much of one.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

The siege on the mall is far from bad. I like that after Peter calls Stephen off on the grounds that the gang is after their goods, not them, Stephen ignores him.

“It’s ours,” Stephen says to himself, justifying his intention to fight. “We took it. It’s ours.”

However much they learned to coexist as people, they still fucking love stuff.

But moments like that don’t need this particular biker gang to work. They don’t need to be this broadly sketched. They don’t need to be cartoon henchmen of a villain who never shows up. The ending could work with anything, from hardened killers to desperate groups who resort to violence because it’s the only way to get inside, resulting in a battle that kills otherwise good people on both sides of the conflict.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

In the previous film, I understand the root of Mr. Cooper’s concerns. In the next film, I understand the root of Captain Rhodes’ concerns. In both cases that’s due at least in part to the fact that we spend time with them, watch them react to the story as it unfolds, so that when it comes time for each of them to do something unforgivable, we understand where it’s coming from. We see the flawed person behind the decision. We recognize the psychological machinery that makes them, in a word, ruin it for everybody.

Not so with the bikers. They are who they are. They’ve got Nazi helmets and insignia. They’ve got leather and firearms. The ride noisy motorcycles and hoot and holler.

Can Romero write better villains? He has. Which makes the shallowness of the bikers all the more puzzling.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Or maybe Romero just wants to give us some fun, too. Night of the Living Dead offered precious little in the way of zombie killing. Dawn of the Dead in this one sequence alone gives us loads of it.

We’ve got hordes of the undead all around us and improvised weapons as far as they eye can see. Let’s go nuts. Let’s get some gore in here. Let’s beat them and chop them and shred them. Let’s give the audience a thrill that we weren’t able to give them before.

The biker gang doesn’t win, of course. They don’t know what the fuck they’re doing, and even though Peter and Stephen are the only two people defending the place, they know the environment and are able to consider their actions more carefully. The bikers are defeated.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Stephen, sadly, takes a bullet in his arm, and it results in him getting swarmed by the zombies. Peter and Fran are left alone, minutes away from being overwhelmed for good.

Fortunately, she’s learned how to fly the helicopter. Peter sends her on her way, planning to kill himself rather than let himself be killed, but he decides to join her on the roof at last. They take off together, leaving the mall overrun.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

“How much fuel do we have?” Peter asks her.

“Not much,” she says.

He pauses. “Alright.”

And that’s it. They fly away, almost certainly to their off-camera deaths, though we’ll never know their final moments. In a film like this, that’s about as good as survival.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Originally, Romero planned a very different ending: Peter would indeed shoot himself and Fran would lift her head into the path of the spinning copter blades. My understanding is that she would do this intentionally, but that’s a decision that could easily have been reversed in the editing booth, making it look accidental.

Either way, as in Night of the Living Dead, we’d be left with no survivors.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

For whatever reason, Romero changed his mind. I think this was the right decision, especially since we don’t follow the helicopter. We don’t see it touch down in a field somewhere, where other survivors approach and lead them to a new community where everything is fine. We don’t see the two embrace upon hearing that a cure has been found.

We get told they don’t have much fuel.

Alright.

We know they didn’t survive. We know they can’t have survived. And yet we don’t have to see them die, so we can cling to whatever comforting fiction we choose. Maybe they’re still out there. The more we think about it the less likely that seems but, well, nobody’s making us think about it.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

We’re left on a more uplifting — pun intended — scene than we are at the end of Night of the Living Dead, and yet Fran and Peter are only marginally more likely to be alive than Ben is, and we saw him get shot and tossed into a bonfire.

It isn’t much, but after a film that showed us that things didn’t always have to be as bad as possible — even in the midst of a situation that really was as bad as possible — Romero lets us believe. More accurately, he lets us delude ourselves, but even that’s a sort of kindness. The door is left open just enough for us to ignore reality.

As everything collapses for good, as there is nothing for anybody to turn to, as a scientist on television proposes the bombing of population centers as our only and unlikely hope, isn’t one last glance skyward, the only direction left that we can reasonably describe as “away,” all we can truly ask for?

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Trilogy of Terror: Night of the Living Dead (1968)

When I was a kid, MTV had a show called Liquid Television. It was a strange program that fascinated me more than I actually enjoyed it, and I think that was its intention. I had no idea what to make of it. Now I can recognize it as a series of animated shorts. Easy. Back then it felt like wading through a dream. A dream that could be scary, funny, and nonsensical in equal turns, shifting from one to the other in the blink of an eye.

There were a few recurring segments, one of which was Stick Figure Theater. This was my favorite, perhaps because it was the only thing on television I’d ever seen that was near my level of artistic ability. The animator — whoever this person was — took existing audio and had little stick figures act it out in a flip-book style. I can’t recall if all of the audio came from films. Some of it might have come from old TV shows or other sources.

But I can recall that one of the films from which the audio was taken was Night of the Living Dead.

I’ve written before about how it took me a long time — well into my adult life — to understand what horror was, let alone appreciate it. I go into detail in my book on Resident Evil. As a child, stick figures having their limbs ripped off while they tried to defend themselves against zombies was an intrusion. Horror was reaching out for me where it shouldn’t have been. It was breaking the rules.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

I was free to ignore the horror aisle at Hometown Video. If I strayed in there, it would be my own fault; the gory cover art stayed right where it was. I was free to suggest other things to watch if a friend suggested a horror film. If a scary movie came on TV, I could change the channel before anything upsetting happened. It was easy to avoid them because they all had evocative titles. Friday the 13th. A Nightmare on Elm Street. Hellraiser.

And Night of the Living Dead.

That title alone is a work of art. It’s profoundly effective phrasing. Two diametrically opposed terms — “living” and “dead” — are recontextualized to be so closely linked that one now describes the other. The separation between the Living and the Dead no longer exists.

“Night of…” is similarly informative. The Living Dead will dominate this night. If we can defeat them, avoid them, defend against them — make it through the Night — we will be okay. It’s not Dawn of the Dead or Day of the Dead; we just need to get through the darkness. This will be the tension that drives the film.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

The astounding thing to me is that all of this is actually true. That’s what takes the title from greatness up through brilliance. As a phrase, “Night of the Living Dead” doesn’t just give your imagination a lot to work with; all of it is accurate. It’s a title, a tagline, a summary, and a content warning.

I’d say the title is doing a lot of heavy lifting, but it’s doing it so elegantly that you don’t even notice it. It’s perfect.

And I knew I did not want to watch it. Seeing stick figures act it out — whatever it was — would clearly be less scary than the real thing, and I still didn’t want that. For years, this is what Night of the Living Dead was to me. It was a movie that wanted to reach me so badly that it would do so through bleeding, suffering stick figures, if that’s what it took.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

As with all horror, I’d barricaded myself against it. But unlike most horror, Night of the Living Dead was relentless. It pounded against my defenses. It might take years to get through, but time was on its side…not mine.

Eventually I opened the door. (I had to come out sometime.) In many ways, it was nowhere near as scary as I’d expected it to be. Its impact had rotted away. I’d seen its tricks repositioned in non-threatening contexts for years. Stick Figure Theater was my first example of that, but then The Simpsons, South Park, even Father Ted had all taken this film’s horror and repackaged it as comedy.

In other ways, it was every bit as scary as I’d expected it to be, because even decades of familiarity, parody, and commentary have done nothing to dull its sharpest edges.

The zombies weren’t really what Night of the Living Dead was about, after all. It was a film about desperate people in a hopeless situation. It was about the decisions they make. It was about their mistakes, their moments of selfishness, how they treat each other when their own lives are on the line. It’s about people who cannot hope to overcome the real enemy and so they turn on each other.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Handled well, that kind of horror does not age. Night of the Living Dead handles it extraordinarily well. That’s why it endures, and that’s why it still has the capacity to frighten. The title warned us about the zombies, and so we could go into the film prepared for them. We can’t prepare for the inherent awfulness of our fellow man.

George A. Romero made a total of six films in the Dead series before he passed away. He also began a book that was finished (and largely written by) Daniel Kraus, which came out earlier this year. Throughout each of these, he explored mankind’s bottomless capacity for cruelty. He did so in different ways and to different degrees, but what fascinated him wasn’t the fact that corpses could rise from their graves; it was the fact that, as they rise, mankind would turn their guns on each other instead.

Say what you will about the zombies; at least they work together…

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead is a nearly perfect film. It’s not my favorite of the trilogy, but it’s certainly the best. It’s almost unbearably effective, escalating the tension both masterfully and effortlessly. It feels in many ways like a movie that made itself, using Romero as a conduit. That isn’t the case, obviously — we have at least two other zombie films that prove Romero as a great artist working in the medium of zombies — but Night of the Living Dead feels natural. It feels like a discovery more than a creation. It’s a work of horrifying beauty made all the more frightening because it feels so organic.

It’s a tragedy of interpersonal tension that could neither have proceeded nor ended in any other way. All six of his zombie films could be described the same way, but I think Night of the Living Dead is the most convincing.

The tension begins as we meet what audiences must have assumed would be our two heroes: Johnny and Barbra, two siblings who arrive at a cemetery after a three-hour drive — Johnny won’t let us or Barbra forget how inconvenient this drive is — to leave a floral arrangement on their father’s grave.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

In addition to the length of the trip — six hours in total, he’s sure to emphasize — Johnny complains that they’re making the trip instead of their mother. He complains that they won’t be home until after midnight. He tells Barbra that he doesn’t even remember what his father looked like. He tries to hurry his sister through her mourning. On top of all of this — poor, suffering Johnny! — he asks Barbra for some candy and learns that there is no candy left.

If I’m making Johnny sound insufferable, I apologize; he isn’t. We get it. I like Johnny. I don’t think he’s an incredible guy, but in just a few extremely efficient lines we understand his frustration. We understand its reasons, its degree, and its limits.

I mention its limits because — and this is important — Johnny doesn’t exist to be a sourpuss. He’s a person. We meet him during an irritating but routine family errand. He, as much as anyone, deserves to blow off a little steam. And, once he does, he comes just a bit more to life.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

He makes a cynical observation about the arrangement they’re leaving on the man’s grave, saying somebody could come by later, pull the dead flowers off, clean up the cross, and sell it again. “I wonder how many times we bought the same one,” he says, and it’s funny. It’s probably funnier than he expected it to be, because his mood changes completely.

He reminisces about playing pranks on Barbra in this very cemetery when they were younger. Barbra isn’t having as much fun with those memories as he is, but I don’t think he’s being a dick; he’s being a brother. He’s picking on his sister. He’ll take a little too far. We all do, sometimes. But he’s a person. We get it.

This is our introduction to one of the most famous and influential horror films ever made: two siblings quietly bickering in the waning daylight. It’s a brief stop on a long Sunday drive. Two actors. One prop. Outfits that could have been brought from home.

Romero’s choice to start the film here, within this context, is likely one of necessity. I can’t say for sure. Perhaps this is where he’d have introduced the zombie outbreak no matter how many millions of dollars studios were throwing at him.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

But I do know that, under the limitations of his actual budget, starting with the Coopers wouldn’t have worked. We learn that they had their car swarmed and turned over by zombies during an attack that ended with their daughter being seriously injured.

Romero and his team would have to purchase a car just to wreck it. They’d have to hire stuntmen. They’d have to be able to count on a high quality of acting and practical effects to sell the injury. They’d either need to find extras who were strong enough to flip a car or design a mechanism that could convincingly do it for them.

Starting with Ben would have been even more expensive. He later tells his story, and it involves seeing a gasoline truck driving wildly down the road with 10 – 15 zombies hanging off of it, beating on it, trying to get at the driver. The truck bursts into flames, rams through a guardrail, and Ben turns away, overpowered by the inhuman screams of the man behind the wheel. He thinks to duck into a nearby diner for safety only to find it already surrounded, 60 more zombies in search of a meal.

Romero didn’t have the budget for that. He had the budget for some dirty people to stand around in bathrobes. I’m enormously grateful for that, because starting in the cemetery — the quiet, calm, ordinary cemetery, during an afternoon that neither of the two characters would even have reason to remember otherwise — was the right idea.

It was the correct decision for introducing to the world his vision of a zombie apocalypse.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

There’s a figure shuffling in the distance. It’s our first true sign that something is amiss, but it’s hardly one that would register on its own. (Their car radio went dead for a long stretch of the trip due to technical difficulties at the station, but that wouldn’t register, either.) Johnny teases Barbra that the man in the distance — though not all that distant — isn’t some drunk or some poor mourner but is a monster. And is one of many.

“They’re coming to get you, Barbra,” he says.

She doesn’t appreciate it. In fact, she’s embarrassed. When she tells this story later, she’ll say that she intended to apologize to the man. Of course she would. She’s a person, too. We get it. The man is approaching. He must have heard what Johnny said. It’s only right to apologize.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

And he seizes her. He grabs her so tightly that it hurts. She struggles to get away but can’t do it. Her flailing just barely keeps him from digging his teeth into her. Johnny rushes to her aid. He’s not a bad guy. He’s a brother. He’s a person. He fights for Barbra. He can’t overpower the man, either, but he can help her get away.

In the scuffle, he’s knocked cold on a tombstone. He might be dead. If he’s not, he will be. And after he is, he’ll rise again.

Weirdly, Johnny is uncredited in the film, but he was played by Russell Streiner, who also produced the film. Behind Duane Jones as Ben, I think he gives the best performance. He’s a convincing brother. We get to know him for all of one scene, but we see every side of him. We understand who he was in life just in time for that life to end.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

The man comes to get Barbra next. Barbra, understandably terrified, flees. She takes refuge in a nearby farmhouse, which seems deserted. She spends the rest of the film here, much of it catatonic.

Of our two heroes, one is dead and the other is numb. Moments ago they were full of life and emotion. Then no life. Then no emotion.

We learn everything from this first scene. We learn how hopeless this is. Both characters struck down by one enemy. As more enemies gather and swarm and surround, we already know how it must end. There will be a moment of carelessness. Perhaps with good intentions, as to apologize. Perhaps because our focus was elsewhere, as with a tussle that leaves us prone to accident. But, in the broadest strokes, we know. Already, we know.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

The farmhouse is not as vacant as it had seemed, but we won’t know that for some time. There’s a corpse upstairs. There’s a young couple and a small family in the basement. And as Barbra panics, she meets Ben, who pulls up to the house in the hope that someone will be there, that someone will be able to unlock the gas pump outside, that someone will be able to help. He finds Barbra, who has retreated so far inward she can barely speak.

Ben takes over as our hero, and he proves himself immediately more competent than both Johnny and Barbra…the former because he takes out two zombies with a tire iron soon after we meet him, and the latter because he is in full control of his emotions.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

If you’ve seen the film, you might push back against that claim. I couldn’t possibly blame you. Ben lashes out a number of times throughout Night of the Living Dead. He raises his voice. He hits people. He throws his weight around. But here’s the thing: I think the movie has Ben do these things not so we’ll suspect he’s out of control, but to assure us that he’s in control.

He gets angry when he allows himself to get angry. When he resorts to anger or violence it’s because he considered the situation and decided that these are the appropriate responses. Ben knows what kindness will get him and what violence will get him, and he decides how to behave based on that.

In other words, I don’t think he ever actually loses his temper; he deploys his temper.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Early in the film he shouts at Barbra, only to catch himself and speak to her more calmly. He’s aware of what he’s doing and how he’s behaving. He took the wrong approach and realized it quickly; he corrected himself.

This is in stark contrast to Barbra, of course, and is in more direct contrast to Mr. Cooper, the older man hiding in the basement. Mr. Cooper demonstrates nearly no control over his emotions.

Mr. Cooper never shuts up. Every thought he has, he voices. Every feeling he has, he expresses. He’s honest to a point that it no longer seems like a virtue.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Turning back to Barbra for a moment, it fascinates me that she doesn’t break down until she’s finally safe. When Johnny is attacked, she’s alert. When she flees, she’s alert. When she explores the house, she’s alert. Then Ben shows up. He barricades the windows and doors. He provides her with the first safe breaths she’s been able to take since tragedy struck. And that’s when she shuts down.

It’s a remarkable and realistic thing. Her mind held itself together as long as it could, just to get her out of danger. Once it did, it relaxed and it fell apart.

Mr. Cooper is the opposite. He doesn’t seem to enter survival mode until he sees everything Ben has done to keep them safe. He points out whatever flaws he can find, to the point that that’s all he’s doing. He introduces panic to an environment that is likely as safe as it could possibly be, considering the circumstances. He held himself together in the basement, without food, a radio, or an escape route if things got even worse. Ben opens the entire home to him, and that’s when he feels unsafe.

Or, no, let me take that back. That’s when he feels threatened.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Mr. Cooper’s concerns are not unfounded. His rationale is that by barricading himself — and whomever else would care to join him — in the basement, he’ll have only one entrance to defend. In the main home, every window and door becomes a liability. The zombies could attack from any angle. The zombies could attack from every angle. With the boards on the windows, the people inside can’t even see them. They won’t know how many are out there. They won’t know what’s happening. They’ll be vulnerable from all sides and unable to respond until it’s too late…

But what comes through — and comes through all too clearly — is the fact that his authority is threatened. Until Ben showed up, Mr. Cooper had final say. Now, suddenly, here’s this…this nobody with a different idea of how things should go. And he’s poking holes in Mr. Cooper’s approach.

Mrs. Cooper and Tom — one half of the young couple — both see through Mr. Cooper’s concerns. They know he’s mainly pushing back because he wants to be in charge again. On some level, he may even need to be in charge.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

The power struggle between Ben and Mr. Cooper — verbalized and silent in about equal measure — is the real tension of the film. The zombies are incidental. It’s not for nothing that the boarded up windows keep us from seeing them. Night of the Living Dead was made on a shoestring budget, but unlike many monster movies, spending more time with the monster here would not have been cost prohibitive. Romero’s monsters are extras in simple makeup, shuffling or swaying with dead-eyed stares. If he could afford to hire the extras, he could afford to show them as often as he liked. Blocking them from view was therefore an artistic decision, not a symptom of artistic limitation.

It’s not the zombies that matter. It’s the frustration inside the house. It’s the mutual lack of trust and respect. It’s the knowledge — which we and the characters can only keep at bay for so long — that this arrangement is unsustainable, because neither Ben nor Mr. Cooper are going to back down.

Mr. Cooper is positioned as the antagonist, but it speaks to Romero’s understanding of humanity that his ideas are no worse than Ben’s, nor are his concerns less valid. Like chronic whiner Johnny, we get it. I understand where Mr. Cooper is coming from. I believe in him as a person. Yes, I like seeing Ben sock him repeatedly in the jaw when we get to that point, but it doesn’t take much mental effort to see the situation from Mr. Cooper’s point of view. To know, to understand, and to sympathize with what happened off camera. (In fact, in the Living Dead novel, it’s the Coopers who are positioned as our focal characters from the first film.)

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

The man is in an impossible situation, living through inexplicable horror. If the other folks in the house didn’t already have their own equivalent stories, they’d never have believed his. He’s traveling with his family. His vehicle is attacked by a mob of what looks like people but clearly are not. They overturn his car with his wife and daughter inside. In their rush to get away, his little girl is bitten. He and his wife run with her in their arms for more than a mile before they find this farmhouse and even the suggestion of shelter and safety. Seeing — correctly — that the number of windows and doors in the main home present an enormous risk, he takes his family into the basement and reinforces the door. His daughter slips into unconsciousness for long stretches. There is no way to treat her and nothing they can do except hope that they live through the night and find help tomorrow.

Tom and Judy also seek the safety of the farmhouse, and they’re young. They’re in search of leadership. They listen to Mr. Cooper. Maybe he knows best and maybe he doesn’t, but he’s at least taking charge, and none of his decisions are putting them in immediate danger.

This is the arrangement. This is sustainable. They hide in the basement of a stranger’s home until the sun comes up and — they can only hope — the nightmare is revealed to be just that.

Then Ben turns up, and Ben has different ideas.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

His course of action is more…active. He recognizes the same flaws in the home that Mr. Cooper recognized, but he addresses them rather than retreats from them. He puts up a fight. He’s more clear headed and less emotional.

Tom finds a new leader. Seemingly a better one. Judy follows, of course. Mrs. Cooper lets her resentment show. Mr. Cooper was probably not a very good guy at any point in his life, but in a time of crisis he implemented a solution. He was in control. And then all of that is swept away and the chaos potentially reintroduced, just because some guy happened to see a gas pump outside.

What gives Ben the right? Well, nothing. But nothing gave Mr. Cooper the right, either. They should have equal claim, except that it’s Ben who found the gun.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

The gun is the most obvious symbol of the power struggle, and it’s an important one. (Mr. Cooper even observes out loud that he has to get his hands on it.) Because Ben has it, he wields a bit more power over Mr. Cooper. One gets the sense that if Mr. Cooper had it, nobody else would wield power at all. Ben wants something close to a democracy, with everybody contributing. Mr. Cooper wants an autocracy, in which his decisions aren’t questioned. These are incompatible.

The characters know it. Ben articulates it. “You can be the boss down there,” he says, “but I’m the boss up here.”

The other symbol of the power struggle is Barbra, broken, distant, and almost completely silent. Mr. Cooper insists several times on taking her into the basement. Ben insists that she stays in the main home with him. She’s incapable of expressing her own opinion, and both men know it, so they each assert their authority over her. On some level, they may have her best interests in mind. Overall, though, they each have an opinion because it’s in opposition to what the other one wants.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Both approaches have flaws. If nobody questions Mr. Cooper, then nobody will be made aware of — and be able to address — any weaknesses in his plan. This goes for even the most obvious one: They don’t have any food in the basement, something that Mr. Cooper doesn’t even seem to realize would be a problem until he finds out Ben has plenty upstairs.

And Ben…well, his flaw is that everybody gets a say, which means their odds of survival are both helped and hindered by everybody else. More hands means more help. It means tasks can be delegated. It means everybody’s knowledge is pooled. It also means that any one of them can make a mistake, jeopardizing the lives of everyone else.

In a moment of narrative cruelly, someone does make a mistake, and it does jeopardize lives. In fact, it takes them. And it’s Ben himself who makes the mistake.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

It happens after they tune in to a news bulletin listing the nearby rescue stations. One of them — Willard — is only about 17 miles away. It’s too far to go by foot — especially with an injured child — but they can take Ben’s truck, if they get the gas pump unlocked…which was the entire reason Ben stopped at the farm house to begin with. Tom finds a key labeled as belonging to the pump.

For a moment, it seems as though things are going to work out. Not just that, but all of the pieces are coming together. It’s as though fate is guiding them toward a solution. All of the dots are being connected. Their salvation is as simple as pumping gas.

Slight detour here: Dawn of the Dead reveals that making it to a “rescue station” might not have helped after all. We’ll discuss that more next week, but in retrospect this suggestion works as a double dose of cruelty. They die because they failed to get there, and they would have died if they’d gotten there. The group is literally damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Anyway, the clear path forward is tossed bit by bit back into chaos. First, Judy — terrified that she might not see her husband again — joins Ben and Tom in their attempt to gas up the vehicle. They drive up to the gas pump where Tom struggles with the lock. The key is labelled, so he knows he has the right one, but something isn’t working. It’s jammed. The lock has been changed. Something is wrong.

It’s a desperate moment. The zombies are closing in. The amount of time Ben and Tom and Judy have left on this Earth can be measured in footsteps.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Ben makes a decision to shoot the lock off. He sets down his torch, levels the gun, and tells Tom to back away. He fires. The lock falls. It worked. But the leaky nozzle and the torch on the ground immediately pose another, larger problem.

Tom drives the truck away to avoid killing everyone in an explosion. He exits the vehicle before it blows, which is when Judy realizes her jacket is stuck. He barely has enough time to begin helping her before the truck explodes. Tom and Judy are killed.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

It’s Ben’s fault, technically. Their deaths are on his conscience. He wasn’t stupid or foolish or even short-sighted. Things didn’t go according to plan. Ben pivoted. It was that or let them get swarmed as Tom fiddled with the lock. He tried. He did something. He didn’t seal himself into a basement and leave the others to fend for themselves. He took action.

The action killed two people. So what was the better option?

Mr. Cooper sees himself as vindicated. “Two people are already dead on account of that guy,” he tells his wife. This is evidence not only that Ben’s approach was inferior, but that it was actively destructive. Had they stayed in the basement, none of this would have happened. Tom and Judy would still be alive. That’s a fact. Those two were dumb enough to follow Ben, and look what happened.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Romero, morally, is on Ben’s side. I think that’s pretty clearly illustrated in the first exchange Ben and Mr. Cooper have. It’s only after Ben and Barbra get settled and fortify the house that the basement door swings open to reveal five more people are already sharing the home.

Ben, completely fairly, asks Mr. Cooper why he didn’t come up to help when he heard them boarding up the windows and doors. “I’m not gonna take that kind of a chance when we’ve got a safe place,” he tells Ben. “We lock up into a safe place, and you’re telling us that we gotta come up here and risk our lives just because somebody might need help, huh?”

“Yeah,” Ben replies. “Something like that.”

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Mr. Cooper’s the asshole. Period. Full stop.

And yet it’s Ben who gets people killed. Morally, sure, let’s all be on Ben’s side. But rationally? Maybe there’s something to what Mr. Cooper says. It’s no accident that Romero steers Ben into that very basement — and has him reinforce the door with the barricades Mr. Cooper set up — when the main home is overrun. The basement saves Ben’s life. Mr. Cooper is dead by that point, but it’s also no accident that Romero keeps his eyes open. On some level, even if it’s only metaphorically, he sees Ben’s silent admission that he was right all along.

All of this makes Mr. Cooper more believable than some of the other human villains we see in Romero’s series. Dennis Hopper’s cartoonish mustache twirler in the moronic Land of the Dead comes immediately to mind, but, to be honest, the motorcycle hooligans from Dawn of the Dead — the very next film we’ll cover, and another great one — count as well. Romero does a consistently great job with his sympathetic characters — the ones with strong moral cores — but seems to have trouble getting into the minds of humans who aren’t quite as good natured.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

The characters come to understand what’s happening the way we all do: through television. The news reports gradually share more and more information as it becomes available. We learn that the attackers are not in a trance, but have returned from the dead. We learn that the process of returning takes only a few minutes. We learn that they hunger for flesh. We learn that this is not an isolated problem.

And we learn why it’s happening. Sort of.

Romero later regretted that he explained — again, sort of — his zombies in Night of the Living Dead. In the remaining five films and the novel, the origin of the zombies are speculated upon, but never firmly established. Here, though, a news report specifies that it’s due to radiation from a returning “Venus probe.” We even hear from some government officials who confirm that this is the case.

I’m with Romero in the sense that the zombies work a little better without knowing why they exist and what triggered the wide-scale reanimation of corpses, but I also find it very easy to dismiss the Venus probe as being The Official Story.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

The government within the film would have reason — as it does in real life — to provide a sense of reassurance in the face of the unknowable. I am willing to believe that this fictional administration is baffled as to the nature of what’s happening, and a coincidental return of a probe from beyond the stars provides a convenient scapegoat. “Radiation did it” doesn’t help any of the survivors, but it might quell panic for just a little bit longer. If the government knows what caused the problem then, surely, they must be that much closer to finding a solution.

“We have no idea what’s happening,” while truthful, would only have caused more damage.

More damage than the zombie apocalypse, yes, I realize what I’m saying is absurd…but what else do you do? Do you lie? Do you tell the truth? You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. So is everybody else.

And so when reporters parrot the Venus probe explanation as fact, I believe it. That’s what they’ve been told. And when the government officials are cornered by reporters on the street, their reluctance to confirm the Venus probe explanation could be political theater. Why not? They can play their dishonesty as a moment of unfiltered honesty. There’s no better way for the government to perpetuate a lie than to have other people think they’ve figured it out for themselves.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

I’m okay with the Venus probe for that reason. I think it’s a symbol of confusion and desperation on the part of a government that no longer has control over anything aside from its own lies.

Romero didn’t intend that — hence his regret — but it works on another level. It works as a promise that whomever is trapped in the White House has no better understanding of this crisis than everyone trapped in the farmhouse.

Regardless of the reason or lack of reason behind the outbreak, an audience in 2020 is going to be many, many steps ahead of the other characters when they hear that the Coopers’ daughter has been bitten.

Ben reacts fairly, considering how little the characters know, suggesting that the kid could have caught a disease from “those things,” but he keeps the conversation constructive. He offers to carry her wherever they need to go. He suggests they find the Coopers’ car and try to get it back on four wheels. When Barbra mumbles something about Johnny having the car keys, he tries to find out where her car is.

But we know it’s too late for the little girl. She’s been bitten. That’s it. She’s both halves of the living dead.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

The late-game reveal of the child rising, bloodthirsty, attacking her own parents is one of the few times the movie suffers for its age. By now, we know how zombie bites work. It’s not a surprise when the girl turns, and it’s not shocking when she attacks her parents. We’ve been ready for that since we learned a zombie took a bite out of her. What’s more, the girl — the zombie version — has appeared on boxes and posters for the film for decades. We know what’s coming. Like Ripley being the star of Alien, it’s a surprise that decades of marketing have ruined for us.

And that’s okay, because the little zombie girl in the basement may come toward the end of the film, but it’s not the last or biggest shock we’re left with. And Romero knew it shouldn’t be. A child zombie would have been enough in 1968. It would have shaken people up. It would have given them a haunting image that would stay with them long into the night, as they failed to fall asleep.

But that wasn’t Romero’s point. It was a big moment, but not the moment toward which he was building.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead, though no character mentions it, is about race. Not exclusively. Maybe not even predominantly. But it’s there. It’s in nearly every scene. It’s in nearly every exchange. It’s a filter through which the entire film can be viewed, even if we don’t quite know that until we reach the end.

Romero has said that Ben wasn’t written with a black actor in mind. I believe that. Romero has said that Ben ended up black because Duane Jones gave the best audition. I absolutely believe that. But the moment the dynamics between the characters start to kick in, it’s race that keeps them burning.

Mr. Cooper doesn’t need race to make him skeptical of Ben, but it’s there every time he tries to turn another survivor against the man. It’s there every time he argues to get the defenseless white woman away from him. It’s there when he doesn’t trust him with a gun. It’s there in the precise amount of venom with which he injects his criticisms.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

It’s there, of course, when locks Ben outside the house to die.

For Mr. Cooper, somebody usurping his authority is embarrassing and emasculating. But for it to be a black man…well, that’s inexcusable. Absurd, even. The dead rising from their graves? That’s nuts, yeah, but can you believe the nerve of this guy?

Tom and Judy, the younger couple — the younger generation — seem to have no trouble accepting Ben and his guidance. Why would they? This guy survived an attack and has done more to fortify the home than anybody else has. He’s also the only one suggesting action instead of isolation. That’s who Ben is to them. That’s who Ben is, full stop. It’s Mr. Cooper — and his notions of racial superiority — that can’t see that.

It’s there in the way in which Mr. Cooper disagrees with Tom yet seethes at Ben. One of them needs a comeuppance. In the disaster at the pump, Mr. Cooper is sure, the wrong one got it.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

And it’s there in the ending.

I won’t walk you through it. I can’t. You either see it, or you can’t see it.

Ben, the lone survivor of a literal night from Hell, steps toward the daylight to be shot dead by a group of hillbillies.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Is there more to it? Sure, but not much.

We met the leader of this mob, Sheriff McClelland, during a news broadcast earlier. His compatriots are, without exception, armed white men. They practice poor trigger discipline. They hold their firearms dangerously. Their guns are mismatched and reflect, essentially, whatever they’ve been able to grab.

McClelland puts on a decent face for the news crew, but at no point does he come across as especially competent or even concerned about what’s happening. And why would he be? He’s confronted with a problem he can solve by pulling a trigger. Ditto the rest of his merry band. These aren’t deep thinkers. These aren’t men of strong moral fiber. These are the people who stood up enthusiastically when they heard volunteers were needed to shoot things.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Romero chose these people specifically for the impression they would give to a viewing audience. When he cast reporters, he cast people who look like reporters. When he cast government officials, he cast people who look like government officials. When he cast zombies, he cast people who looked…like people. Because that’s what they were. A normal, average bunch of people you might otherwise have encountered on a bus.

When he cast this group of armed rednecks…well…

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

He knew what he was doing.

And he knew what he was doing when he had one of them tell another to shoot a black man and then congratulate him on his marksmanship.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Whatever amount of care and consideration the mob employed at the start of their operation — and I am confident it was not much — is long gone by sunrise.

They’re careless, aiming whatever weapons they have at whatever human figure is moving in the distance. We see them do it. Advance, shoot, reload. Collect the bodies, toss them in a fire. No pause for consideration. No attempt to call out and see if, maybe, there’s a living person up ahead. On some level, they’re well aware that they’re shooting people — usually in the back — who may be alive. The end of the film proves it, if we tried to push the thought from our minds earlier.

But, hey, what are they going to do? Stop and check every person they find? Ask if they’re okay? Deal with their followup questions and requests for help? Can you imagine how much time that would take? At that rate, we’ll never get through this. It’s far quicker to pull a trigger.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

We know we’re not zombies. That’s enough. We know others might be zombies. That’s enough.

In the earlier news broadcast — when McClelland was on his best behavior for the viewing public — he tells the reporter about a previous zombie encounter.

“We caught them trying to claw their way into an abandoned shed,” he says. “They must have thought someone was in there.” Then, quickly: “But there wasn’t, though.”

If you can make it to the end of the movie and conclude that a group of zombies were going against everything we’ve learned about them, that they really were trying to smash their way into a structure that contained nobody who would have drawn their attention or appetite, you are a more imaginative person that I will ever be.

We know what they were doing. We know what McClelland’s squad did. And then the reporter gave him some coffee so he’d be alert enough to march along and do it all over again.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

In my book on Resident Evil, I write about the experience of sharing Night of the Living Dead with a theater full of people who hadn’t seen it. I won’t repeat the story here, but I will say that that moment — that precise frame of the film — fifty years later still had so much of its original impact.

Nothing else about the film could be said to have aged as gracefully. I love Night of the Living Dead and I stand by my earlier assessment that it’s nearly perfect. And yet we can sit down and pick at it. We can poke fun at some of the acting and directing. We can talk all day long about how it did or didn’t overcome its budgetary limitations. We can certainly talk about later zombie films — even those by Romero — and how they eclipsed the accomplishments of this one, rendering it obsolete. Turning it into a relic. A museum display piece rather than anything that matters today.

But then there’s that ending.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

I wish I could say that that ending has aged terribly. I wish I could call it a relic of a different time. I wish I could see this only as one man dying in a work of fiction.

I wish to God I could.

Color films had been made for nearly three decades before Night of the Living Dead. They were commonplace by 1968. And yet, years after color films became the norm, Romero gave us a black-and-white horror movie.

Maybe that’s coincidental, but it doesn’t feel that way.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Announcing: Trilogy of Terror VI

What a fuckin’ year, eh? Let’s celebrate Halloween with three visions of the end of the world: George A. Romero’s First Dead Trilogy.

This is your notice to watch the films if you haven’t already, though I suspect most of you will have already seen at least two of them. Watch all of them. Not only will I be spoiling everything, but they’re fantastic, and if you disagree you are incorrect. I’ll even prove it!

Trilogy of Terror VI will consist of longform analyses of the following films:

Night of the Living Dead (1968) – coming Oct. 17
Dawn of the Dead (1978) – coming Oct. 24
Day of the Dead (1985) – coming Oct. 31

All three films are available in their entirety, for free, on YouTube.

I’ll see you soon. I have more to say but frankly I’ve managed to impress myself that I have the energy to do a Trilogy of Terror this year at all.

Please do tune in. I’d love to hear your thoughts on all three. And, hey, if it goes well, maybe I’ll do Romero’s Second Dead Trilogy as well.

At some point.

If I really start to hate myself.

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