31 Screams in October, #13: Day of the Dead (1985)

Posted: October 12, 2014 in Movie Review
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Day of the Dead (1985)

Director: George A. Romero

Starring: Lori Cardille, Terry Alexander, Joe Pilato, Richard Liberty

If consumerism was the topic for discussion raised by “Dawn of the Dead,” then the overall focus of 1985’s “Day of the Dead” must be communication. With the zombie infestation having spread to the point where humans are now being outnumbered somewhere in the vicinity of 400,000 to 1, gone is the urban environment of “Night of The Living Dead” and the more fun locale of the shopping mall in “Dawn of the Dead.” Instead, these are replaced by one of the only “safe” areas for humans to seek refuge: an underground military base in Fort Myers, Florida. In fact, aside from a couple of guys (named Billy and John) whose main job it is to fly a helicopter, the only civilians present at the base are a team of scientists, with the other dozen or so being military officers. The whole operation hinges on the ability of this handful of survivors displaying the ability to trust one another and maintain civil dialect… and if that were even a possibility, this wouldn’t be a very exciting movie, would it?

Communication has already been made a problem as it concerns the outside world. There is no indication that anyone outside of Fort Myers (including Washington, DC) is even alive, and any way of sending or receiving messages has long been lost to them. When the rescue team takes the helicopter to look for survivors, all that main character Sarah (Lori Cardille) and the others find are deserted towns overrun by zombies everywhere they go. Things aren’t any better back at the base. With commanding officer Major Cooper having died just prior to the film’s events, the scientists are left to deal with the dangerously unstable Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato). Worse still, any chance the scientists might have of getting through to Rhodes is diminished by the bizzarely secretive experiments being run by Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty), nicknamed “Frankenstein” by the soldiers.

It is Logan’s belief that, although humans can no longer overtake the zombies with ammunition, there may still be a way to co-exist with them by domesticating the zombies. Reward, he says, is the key. He demonstrates this much with his star pupil of sorts, a zombie he has nicknamed “Bub” (Sherman Howard).  Dr. Logan has managed to condition Bub not to attack humans like other zombies do, instead teaching him to recognize objects like razors, toothbrushes and books. Bub also demonstrates the ability to use a gun (albeit an unloaded one), which angers Rhodes. Knowing that Rhodes would only react more ferociously, what Logan has kept to himself is where he has been acquiring the majority of his test subjects, as they are almost exclusively the re-animated corpses of dead soldiers. This includes the recently deceased Major Cooper.

Also failing to communicate is Private Miguel Salazar, who is involved in a relationship with Sarah. She knows there’s something wrong with him, but he’s not up to sharing with his fellow soldiers the fact that he’s moments away from cracking under pressure. Eventually, his mental instability leads to the death of two of Rhodes’ men. This mistake leads Rhodes to make the latest in a long line of rash decisions, effectively shutting down the scientific operation. If Rhodes had his way completely, Miguel, whose arm was bitten and subsequently amputated, would be shot on sight. Instead, he remains under the protection of Billy and John (Terry Alexander).

Sarah sees clearly that there is no dealing with Rhodes, and that Dr. Logan may be equally insane, and she, Billy and John all agree that the best thing they can do is fly the helicopter out of the base before someone else gets the same idea. With enemies closing in for the kill from all sides, you know it won’t be that simple.

As with “Dawn of the Dead,” this one also boasts make-up effects by Tom Savini. I’m of the opinion that you can really distinguish a Tom Savini horror film from all the rest. There’s just something delightfully grotesque about his work that makes it stand out. A young, long-haired assistant of Savini’s is also worthy of note, not for the fact that he also appears in the film as a soldier but because of what he’s accomplished since then. Learning from the makeup effects master has been beneficial for Greg Nicotero, who is now the lead special makeup effects artist, executive producer, and occasional director and actor for AMC’s “The Walking Dead.”

I can’t imagine the pressure that George Romero must’ve been under to top his previous two zombie films. “Day of the Dead” was something of a box-office bomb in its day, and I understand that the original plans to make a more epic picture had to be scrapped when the budget for the film was reduced by about 50%. In all honesty, if you really have to compare this one with what came before, many would probably put “Day of the Dead” a distant third… although I’d personally rank it 2nd, slightly above “Night of the Living Dead.” However that comparison pans out, the movie is exceptional when judged on its own merits. What really cinches it for me are the improved makeup effects and a dazzlingly creepy performance from Joe Pilato. Captain Rhodes, every bit as unhinged a man as the Governor from “The Walking Dead,” is this trilogy’s greatest living character, and proves that, even in a post-apocalyptic world where the dead return to life to eat your flesh, man is still the thing you should fear the most.

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