Hello, sickos. What’s your favourite moment of gore in George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985)? Is it when that guy shovels off the top half of a zombie’s head and sends it bouncing along the floor? Perhaps it’s when the film’s mad doctor pulls back a bloodied sheet to reveal a head peeled down to its brain and spinal column? Or maybe that single bone-crunching machete swipe to prevent the infection from spreading…
Romero is going through a patch of hyperactivity at the moment. His latest entry in the Dead series is being published as a comic, with the first issue out last month. He’s interviewed in the latest issue of Sight & Sound. His debut film, Night of the Living Dead (1968), was the subject of a recent feature documentary. And all before his 74th Birthday, which he celebrated on Tuesday. Let’s raise a glass to George, the master – no, the progenitor – of the modern zombie movie.
But as the years and the accolades and the creative projects pile up like so many corpses, Day of the Dead still stands out. It isn’t my favourite Romero film (that would be 1981’s Knightriders, which I wrote about for The Spectator). But it is the grimmest. All that blood and gore, those meticulous deaths, the unflinching camera – and that’s not even the worst of it.
This, the third of Romero’s Dead films, is the one in which humanity has been overcome. The prologue makes this clear. Our heroine Sarah takes a helicopter trip to some Floridian town, in search of survivors: “Helloooo! Is anyone there?” But the only response is the swish of a resident alligator’s tail and the growl of a zombie horde. There are no sheriff’s posses, like in Night. There aren’t even any rapacious biker gangs, like in Dawn. For all we know, these characters are on their own. They’re the only survivors.
So, for the rest of the film, they make like survivors – and hole-up in an underground bunker complex. Sarah belongs to one of the three groups down there: the scientists who are investigating the zombies with the intention of curing, or containing, them. Then there are the soldiers: brawn to protect the brainiacs. And finally the inbetweeners, such as the helicopter pilot John, who are neither scientists nor soldiers.
Oh, and there’s also a zombie on a chain, called “Bub”. Don’t forget the zombie on a chain.
It is, from the off, an uneasy coalition. Not only are there differing views on how to deal with the zombie apocalypse thang – A bullet between the eyes, or domestication? Tough on zombies, or tough on the causes of zombies? – but there’s also one scientist experimenting, secretly, on the bodies of fallen soldiers. There will, we know, be blood.
The situation in Day of the Dead is too unnatural to be described as a “state of nature” – these aren’t people acting plainly, for they’re also acting against the walking dead. But there is still a shot of Hobbesian pessimism in the mix. Characters such as the maniacal, clench-faced Captain Rhodes are so interested in their own self-preservation that they forget about the preservation of the race as a whole. Their interactions become so much shouting, swearing and gun-waving – or “a lack of human communication,” as Romero puts it – that extinction is inevitable.
Does anything good or happy come out of this? There’s a stage in the film where that seems particularly unlikely. It’s when Sarah visits the motorhome – “The Ritz” – that’s been co-opted and decorated by the inbetweeners John and Bill. Yeah, it’s charming, with its wicker chairs and tropical backdrops. And, yeah, they seem like decent dudes. But, as she impresses on them, there are horrible things happening elsewhere in the complex. It’s not enough to just kick back and relax.
But then comes what is probably the most important scene in Day of the Dead. Captain Rhodes wants to shoot a soldier who’s been bitten by a zombie – although Sarah cut off his arm to stop the infection – but John and Bill won’t let it happen. They put down their laid-back attitudes and un-holster their guns to save the man’s life. As in Romero’s Knightriders, good doesn’t just come from being an individual. It comes from taking a stand.
Which is what makes the final shot of the movie so terrifyingly ambiguous. After the climactic, symphonic gorefest in the base – helped on, incidentally, by the man whose arm was lopped off and whose life was saved – Sarah, John and Bill escape to a sunlit island. Are they taking a stand simply by surviving in the face of all that death? Or have they capitulated, no longer even trying to fight the zombies on humanity’s behalf? Is if hopeful or hopeless? In any case, they’re now cut off, entire of themselves.