Wednesday, September 7, 2005

MOVIES: Zombie-Rama, Part Three - Day of the Dead!

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What, did you think I forgot about the zombies? A while back I decided I'd check out George Romero's series of "Living Dead" movies from start to finish, recording my thoughts and impressions on 'em as a "zombie virgin." So I reviewed "Night of the Living Dead" here and its 1978 sequel "Dawn of the Dead" here a while back — and then I had to watch Disney cartoons for a while to feel clean and virtuous again. Anyway, I finally got around to resuming my quest, and that brings us to 1985's "Day of the Dead."

"Day" follows the template of the previous two movies — in a world overrun with flesh-eating zombies, a small group of people holes up somewhere and tries to survive. But it gives it an interesting twist, in that the survivors are composed of two warring groups, a desperate group of scientists and the jittery, paranoid soldiers charged with protecting them. The scientists and soldiers are staying in a claustrophobic underground bunker, where the scientists are working to find some kind of cure to the zombie menace. Outside, the dead await, while inside the military and the scientists are increasingly at odds. It's a gripping, suspenseful premise, but kind of jagged in the execution.

After a solid beginning sequence, the middle of "Day" starts to really sag, with barely any zombies and endless scenes of arguing among the humans. There's gaping holes in the plot — what exactly are the scientists trying to accomplish again? — and the militarymen are presented as one-dimensionally stupid and evil. And the movie, typical with Romero flicks, boasts a mix of adequate and just awful acting. The main characters here really never take off, with the bland Lori Cardille as the leading lady. Joseph Pilato, playing psycho zombie-hater Captain Rhodes, is so ridiculously over-the-top he's absurd, working himself up into frothing frenzies on screen. Pilato really resembles a beefier Jason Bateman from "Arrested Development," so I kept getting weirded out seeing Michael Bluth fighting zombies.

The zombies continue to evolve as protagonists - from the faceless monsters of "Night" to the ghouls reliving their old human activities in "Dawn," we come full circle in "Day" with scientists trying to retrain zombies to think. One borderline mad scientist is conducting all kinds of gruesome experiments on captured zombies, and has even managed to partially "tame" one zombie, "Bub." The scenes involving Bub are surprisingly effective, taking something that might've been silly and wringing actual emotion out of it. "Day" makes you feel some sympathy for the zombies; or at least, Romero seems to say, we're all equally awful. I imagine hard-core horror fans might've turned up their noses at the scenes involving "Bub," but I thought these were some of the most effective in the movie. Besides, who wouldn't love a zombie that can shoot a gun. He'll eat your brains, THEN he'll shoot you!

"Day" boasts the goriest, bloodiest conclusion of the three dead films to date, when the sadistic military men get exactly what's coming to them as the zombies break into the base. The mood of mounting disaster really pays off. Whew -- some of these scenes are not for the sensitive, even if it's just latex and pig intestines being yanked around the screen. Eww. The final 30 minutes or so of "Day" are full-throttle gore and retribution, which makes up a lot for the slower bits.

Romero apparently had big budget battles over the flick and it didn't turn out like he wanted it to, but while it's hardly a multimillion-dollar blockbuster, "Day" still looks better, more professional than either of its predecessors, with solid cinematography and great zombie makeup. "Day" is often called the least of the "Dead" movies, although I'm not quite sure where I'd rank it. I really enjoyed "Night" mostly as curiosity, as the beyond-cheap production kind of distanced me from it. "Dawn" is probably the best movie, more "epic" in scope and with the best character development of any of the movies. "Day," however, probably delivers more for the gorehounds and takes the entire idea of a world of living dead in interesting, unexpected directions. It's flawed, but it's not a huge letdown at all. It's a bleak, cynical movie, somehow even more so than the first two zombie flicks.

I'll come back with the conclusion of "Zombierama" and a look at the fourth and final (so far) "Dead" flick, last summer's "Land of the Dead," sometime next month. Until then, stay alive!

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