Reviews in the Machine: Day of the Dead (1985)
In light of the recent passing of actor Joseph Pilato, I thought it would be a good time to share some of my thoughts on one of my favorite all-time zombie films. The original trilogy of films which George Romero presented has stood the test of time as great representations of the zombie genre. While zombies have taken off in modern popular culture, all things must have their origins. And while I love all three of the films, Day of the Dead has always been my favorite. Dawn of the Dead is a great film but at times it does tend to drag a bit for me. And while Night of the Living Dead is an undeniable classic, at times it comes off as a bit on the quaint side for me, more of a rough sketch of the greatness that zombie films could become, further down the road.
As a brief aside up front, one thing I loved about Romero’s tendencies that I don’t think is as present in todays iterations is the level of comedic value he gave to the zombies, themselves. Because they were staggering around, not running as they do now, he could add some extra color and texture to the zombies to make them more interesting. This wasn’t just a big crowd of people in gross makeup. You’d see a flock of zombies and all of a sudden you spot a kid wearing a football uniform, including the helmet. And then in another you might spot a zombie in a tuxedo and top hat. Or maybe a zombie still wearing the yellow rubber gloves one might wear while washing dishes. It was just little quirky moments that made the movies more amusing and fun to watch.
Day of the Dead is a movie largely absent of zombies, until the end, that is. Despite this, and even though I will concede that many of the actors tend to lean towards the easy, fairly stereotypical tropes of characters who are scientists or soldiers, the story here is still compelling enough to keep me engaged. I loved the dynamic between these two groups, hiding out in an underground facility. On one hand, you have a group of scientists trying to work out what has happened to the world. Then you have the soldiers, left alone without chain of command, trying to work towards a goal that hasn’t really been defined, battling to balance between their military discipline under the weight of some staggering pressures. And it all comes to a head thanks to the poor decisions of a head scientist who has maybe lost a little of his sanity and a lot of his judgement along the way.
Joseph Pilato delivered a great performance in this, the soldier in charge of the facility. It isn’t easy to play a villain who is a terrible person and sympathetic at the same time. Pilato managed to portray a character that is easy to despise for what he does throughout the film. Still, Romero and Pilato also managed to interject a bit of humanity in him in order to make him a compelling aspect of an entertaining film. He steals a number of scenes in the movie and has one of the most awesome, over-the-top death scenes that I have seen all throughout the franchise.
While the movie is a bit of a slow burn, the inevitable break down it all leads up to is great. As the viewer, you know that things are not going to go well for these people and that this facility isn’t going to stay secure. All that remains is waiting to find out how specifically the collapse is going to happen. And when things do fall apart, they do so in an a brutal and captivating fashion. The action ramps up to the highest level and the practical effects are stellar. There are some fantastically gory moments, so much that even some thirty years later, I’m still not entirely sure how they did most of it. It still makes me cringe just to watch it at times.
There was a time when horror movies were gritty and in your face while at the same time also packed with plenty of low humor to help you get through the experience. Day of the Dead is a perfect example of that vibe and I have never failed to be entertained, every time I have come back to it. It has a cool score that gives it the vibe of a great seventies film. And everything works its way up to a final scene that actually puts a nice little cap on the franchise that to me could stand as the last moments of an overall narrative arc. Day of the Dead is a brutally intense film highlighting the intense hostility and danger of this micro-community after the apocalypse. And the threats from within are just as pressing as those from the outside.