Monday, October 08, 2012

Making Monsters #8: Day of the Dead

Day of the Dead was lost in the shuffle back when it was released in 1985; in a year filled with great, fun horror movies like Re-Animator, The Return of the Living Dead and Fright Night, it was a downer by comparison and a movie that audiences mostly stayed away from. Its reputation has grown tremendously over the years - it's arguably the most influential of Romero's original trilogy in terms of the current aesthetic zombie movies, video games and the hit series The Walking Dead - and it's grown on me a great deal as well. Its grimy, cynical tone was originally a bit of a letdown after the brightly colored, comic book-influenced aesthetic of Dawn of the Dead. Now, I appreciate it as a series of Socratic dialogues demonstrating how our inability to pull together in the face of our extinction is as much the problem as the zombies themselves; in fact, the scientist characters' guinea pig zombie Bub (Howard Sherman) is one of the movie's most sympathetic characters. Of course, it's not the zombie My Dinner With Andre - the last half-hour is a huge, blood-splattered payback that feels like director George A. Romero and makeup artist Tom Savini taking their collaboration on these movies as far as it can go.

Of all the makeup artists I looked up to as a kid, Savini was at the top of the list. His inventiveness in making zombie epics on a low-budget and his work on Romero's other films (including another I'll write about later in the month) and indie productions like Friday the 13th and The Burning made me feel that it was possible to make a great, gory horror movie in my own back yard. Day of the Dead is Savini's masterpiece; the zombies are in a more decomposed state than in Dawn, and Savini goes wild with their rotting flesh, missing limbs and exposed organs. Once you get past the initial gross-out factor, the artistry on display is amazing; Savini, who drew on his experiences as a combat photographer in Vietnam as a reference for his work, never shies away from the grotesque details of what happens after we die.

The last reel of Day of the Dead, when the zombies break into the underground mine that has served as the characters' fortress and overpower the cast of soldiers, is an orgy of characters being torn limb from limb, most memorably the revolting comeuppance of the film's antagonist, Col. Rhodes (Joe Pilato). Pilato is perfectly hateful as Rhodes, and it's sickly satisfying to see him torn to bloody pieces by the undead - Savini sells the effect of Pilato's head protruding from a prosthetic body with real animal organs and viscera, made extra-gnarly after the refrigerator they were stored in before filming the scene was accidentally left unplugged for the weekend (the extras who willingly gnawed on rotten pig parts for the sake of art deserved some kind of award). It's a terrific ending for people with a certain (sick) point of view, an ultragory grand finale capped off by Pilato's classic delivery of Rhodes' final line: "Choke on 'em!"

2 comments:

Andrea Ostrov Letania said...

I think it's just dumb.

Bemis said...

Care to elaborate?