Day of the Dead (1985)

Title: Day of the Dead (1985)
Director: George A. Romero
Writer: George A. Romero

In this third installment of director George A. Romero’s zombie trilogy, the planet is now completely overrun by the undead. The main characters in this film are an odd mix of civilians, scientists and military. They are all living in an underground missile silo attempting to coexist whilst studying the behaviour of the undead specimens they manage to catch and keep in captivity. It is fair to say that tensions are severely high between the scientists and the military men.

In the opening scenes we are introduced to our heroes inside a helicopter flying out in search of possible survivors. They land on a deserted street. Trash is strewn in the street and there is a general air of abandonment about the place. Newspapers lying in the gutter portray headlines such as The Dead Walk! , while outside a bank money blows away in the wind and even (rather oddly) an alligator moves down the street among the dead where the living once walked. Sarah (a scientist) and Miguel (her lover and a member of the military) have left the helicopter and gone in search of survivors. The sounds of Miguel’s voice screaming out: “Hello! Is anyone there?” over and over again is one of the most disturbing opening scenes I have seen in a long time. Romero’s zombie apocalypse has well and truly taken over completely, and there appears to be no longer any contact with the outside world including media broadcasts and the news. The level of isolation is very clear.

Realizing there are no survivors the couple run back to the helicopter and report to their pilot and co-pilot, a Jamaican called John and an alcoholic named McDermott. They fly back to the silo, and when they are landing John voices his wish that they would all just pack up and fly away to a tropical island somewhere to wait it out. We realize then that not everyone has the same idea as to how they wish to spend their time.

The military are led by Captain Rhodes, who took over from a Major Cooper who died from unknown causes. I am just going to say this once, and that is that Rhodes is an asshole. That is all I am going to say about that. His team of men help capture members of the undead to use in experiments conducted by a Dr.Logan (whom everyone has nicknamed Frankenstein, and whom I will also refer to him as.). The experiments so far have proven that the zombies have maintained certain parts of their instinctual memory. Frankenstein’s experiments are disturbing and very visual as he removes the vital organs from his test subjects, and ultimately proves that they still have basic motor functions and the desire to eat human flesh, even without their lungs, hearts and intestines. In the meantime Sarah has discovered that Frankenstein has been using Major Cooper’s body to conduct experiments with, and she is not impressed. She is also concerned that the military will find out about this.

During one of the military men’s missions to capture a zombie Miguel makes a mistake that almost proves fatal for one of the other men. It further increases the tension between the civilians and the military when Sarah tries to defend Miguel by claiming that he is psychologically unstable. What they have realized now though is that the undead are starting to fear them, and it is becoming increasingly harder to catch them, and therefore more dangerous.

The tension between the two clearly defined groups reaches a dangerous level when Rhodes demands results from the scientists and threatens Sarah with a gun during one of their meetings. As scary as it is out there it is equally scary underground with the civilians/scientists now in the minority. Despite their pessimism Sarah is still convinced that there are people in Washington in high positions that will one day swoop in and save the day by taking them all to a more sophisticated bunker elsewhere. She goes back to her room to find Miguel completely out of it. She attempts to sedate him, and he storms out. Angrily she goes to visit John and McDermott who offer her a sense of peace away from the chaos of the bunker. Aptly named ‘The Ritz’ the two men have created their own little oasis away from the scientists and the military. They drink and discuss the pointlessness of it all.

In the meantime Dr. Frankenstein has found himself a kind of ‘pet’ in the form of a zombie he has named Bob (yes really). He has discovered that ‘Bob’ has been exhibiting flashes of memory from his past, and is able to demonstrate this by knowing instinctively what to do when holding a phone and a gun. He gives Bob a paperback copy of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot which he hopes will spark some memory in him.

The men go on another mission to capture more of the undead. The attempted capture proves fatal for some of the men, and Miguel is bitten on the arm. He runs away and Sarah chases after him right outside ‘The Ritz’, and knocks him unconscious. With absolutely no time to lose she cuts off his arm (the infected area) and cauterizes it with a homemade torch. Rhodes and his men catch up with Sarah and the others and threaten to kill Miguel, but the civilians promise to keep him under watch and eliminate him if he shows signs of turning. The rift between the two camps is well and truly set.

Frankenstein has now completely lost his mind, and so McDermott suggests they take the helicopter and leave before the military get the same idea. When they realize that Frankenstein has been feeding Bob with the remains of the dead soldiers a fight breaks out and Rhodes shoots Frankenstein and Fisher (one of the last scientists). Rhodes then forces John to fly him and his men out, leaving behind the remaining survivors. Well, that’s the plan anyway…

It is worth noting that there are two odes to Romero’s previous Dawn of the Dead (1978) that I noticed. There may be more. One is the few seconds of the same music they played inside the abandoned mall, and the other is when Rhodes refers to John as ‘Flyboy’, which was exactly how they referred to Stephen in the previous film.

The military men use racist terms when referring to Miguel whom they call “Spic” and John whom Rhodes calls a “Jungle Bunny”. Just further reasons to hate these guys.

In the final battle scenes Miguel escapes out of the bunker through a large elevator and rigs the mechanics of it in such a way that the controls are now situated in a handheld device he alone has control over. Sarah and McDermott who are trapped underground with the undead have to run for their lives through the underground passages. John manages to overpower Rhodes, locates Sarah and McDermott and they escape by climbing up an emergency ladder.

In the meantime Miguel has now opened the gates releasing the undead and led them to the elevator. In a very disturbing scene he sacrifices himself in order to help the others escape by pushing the handheld device and taking scores of zombies back down into the silo with him. One by one the last remaining military men are ripped apart when they fail to outrun the undead. The bunker is now swarming with zombies.

Bob escapes his chains and recognizes the now dead Dr. Frankenstein. He wails as if in mourning for the loss of a friend, and goes wandering around the silo. He discovers the terrified Rhodes attempting to escape. There is a showdown and Bob ends up shooting Rhodes in the chest just before he is ripped apart by swarms of the undead.

Sarah, John and McDermott escape in the helicopter. We find them all happy and safe on a tropical island fishing and lying in the sun. They have found an oasis away from not only the horrors of the apocalypse (for now), but also from the far scarier situation inside the bunker. I think in this case Rhodes and his men seemed a far more dangerous threat than the dead ever did. Perhaps Romero’s use of Frankenstein and his attempt to ‘humanize’ the zombies was in part also an attempt to ‘demonize’ the human beings running around underground in that bunker. In fact the white walls and long passages often reminded me of experiments that involve rats in mazes. I don’t know if that was the point and you can interpret it in any way you wish, but the way I see it the humans were far more of a threat then the undead and I guess that was the point.

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