From Dawn to Day

“Dawn of the Dead” and “Day of the Dead”

Why are George A. Romero’s zombie sequels so effective? The performances are over-the-top and one-note, the music is dated and bad, they’re directed to showcase special effects rather than advance the story, and — really — they’re not terribly exciting or scary.

Yet 1978’s Dawn of the Dead and 1985’s Day of the Dead remain great horror movies, two distinctive and very different films that showcase Romero’s peculiar gifts for social commentary and understanding human behavior. (I’ll deal here only with those two movies, because although I own Night of the Living Dead, I’ve never seen it all the way through. Shame on me, eh?)

Clocking in at more than two hours, Dawn of the Dead is ridiculously long considering the plot, which basically involves a small band of humans holing up in a shopping mall and doing battle with zombies and a motorcycle gang.

The movie is generally read as an exuberant send-up of American consumerism. People when they’re undead go where they were happiest, so they congregate at the shopping mall. But that joke and angle are so obvious that they’re not very satisfying — at least today and certainly not over the course of nearly 130 minutes. (I’m guessing Dawn of the Dead was considered significantly more radical 25 years ago, when malls were novel havens rather than despised purveyors of conformity.)

Yet it’s possible — and correct, I think — to read the film as silent on consumerism. The setting does not automatically render it an anti-capitalist statement, especially considering that the mall turns out to be the best place the survivors could land, with its abundant food, weapons, and ammunition, and its locking doors.

What’s impossible to ignore, though, is the gleeful carnage of both the protagonists and the filmmakers. The zombies aren’t really proper villains — they have no enmity toward the humans and have no personality — yet the human characters and special-effects whiz Tom Savini are nearly giddy in their bloodlust. And because the characters become as interchangeable as the zombies, their fates become irrelevant. The serial destruction of zombies and the lack of investment in the outcome are positively numbing and render the movie most effective as an argument against violence and (on some level) works such as Dawn of the Dead. Oh, the irony ... .

The movie’s length and repetition are saying something: that these survivors can kill dozens, hundreds, or thousands of zombies, and in the end, the humans are still going to lose. (This reading treats the movie as Art rather than Entertainment, because its premise is that the audience is meant to find the film tedious.)

But the marginal protagonists don’t view their situation as hopeless. One of the humans puts a gun in his mouth near the end of the movie, and the smart thing to do would be to blow his brains out. Of course, he doesn’t. Because in the end, the survival instinct — the push to fight — overrides logic.

Well, at least it did at that point. Faced with an even bleaker immediate future, one character in Day of the Dead swallows the barrel and pulls the trigger.

And therein lies the key difference between the two movies. Dawn of the Dead is dealing with people who are desperate to survive — they still feel like they have something to lose — while Day of the Dead concerns folks who are just desperate — they’ll try anything.

Hence, you have a military commander (Joseph Pilato) who threatens to shoot any human who so much as irritates him, even though that seems counter to his best interests. You have the exuberant Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty), whom everybody calls “Frankenstein,” doing experiments trying to tame the undead with a little attention and some “rewards.” And you have an exhausted, frightened private (Antone DiLeo) who seems to want only to die.

The movie is set almost entirely in an underground bunker, where the humans are largely protected from the zombies and spend their time squabbling among themselves and hurling epithets at each other. These are people behaving very, very badly.

If, as Romero asserts, the Dead movies are periodic portraits of American culture, Day of the Dead (recently released on DVD in a fantastic edition) finds the United States in a sorry state; the world almost isn’t worth fighting for. Yet although it takes a dark view of humanity, Day at least seems concerned about the human race.

What’s intriguing about Day of the Dead is that the zombies are really in the background; the humans’ main adversaries in the movie are themselves, and the situation only gets dire (in terms of the threat from the zombies) when somebody decides to open the bunker to the undead.

By all accounts, Day was meant to be a much bigger movie, but Romero ended up with a $3-million budget and had to pare it down significantly. Audiences were expecting the zombie movie to end all zombie movies, and instead they got a curiously small-scale drama.

But the austerity works, particularly in contrast to the intentional excess of Dawn of the Dead. Day is more intimate, its characters are more sharply drawn, and what happens is more character-driven. It’s less broad, and its story is elegant and tight.

And at its heart is Bub, the zombie (played with great sweetness by Howard Sherman) that Dr. Logan is trying to train. What’s unspoken is that Dr. Logan knows that his research is, for the most part, useless. Turning Bub (who also provides the movie’s few good shivers) into a docile companion has no larger utility, because the process has to be repeated with each creature, and Logan calculates that zombies outnumber humans 400,000 to one.

What Logan is really doing is making himself a friend, because he’s lonely. His actions underscore the desperation of Day of the Dead, but Romero doesn’t spell it out; he leaves it for audiences to discover.

With the release this summer of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, there might be a tendency to ignore Romero’s sequels. After all, 28 Days Later is essentially these two movies put together, stripped of their overkill, made professionally and efficiently, and turned into one of the most satisfying horror movies of recent years.

But it doesn’t replace them. For all their faults, Romero’s sequels to Night of the Living Dead have a goofy charm and surprising resonance that nobody can replicate. At least until he makes his next zombie movie.

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