Friday, November 01, 2013

Day of the Dead (George Romero, 1985)

(George Romero 1940 - 2017)
My contribution to the 31 Days of Zombie at The Projection Booth:

My favorite Dead

The Dead movies aren't so much examples of sophisticated filmmaking as they are powerful metaphors given free rein by a cunning imaginative filmmaker. Night of the Living Dead (1968) was about how a handful of people under siege (Middle-class America faced with the horrors of Vietnam) are able to uphold their standards of decency (not too well unfortunately); Dawn of the Dead (1978) was the same formula set against a large-scale parody of American consumerism (this just a few years before the onset of the materialistic '80s)--even the blandly overbright quality of the film's lights perfectly mimicked mall lighting.

Dawn is of course the critics' favorite for its comic-book flavor relative lightheartedness commentary on consumerism; when the critics went to see Day they expected more of the same. But Romero had moved beyond the satire of Dawn; he was making metaphysical and philosophical statements on the human condition rendered in extremis--soldiers vs. scientists, men vs. women (or woman), pacifists vs. idealists, all cooped up in the hellhole of a pressure-cooker with dial set to 'apocalyptic.' Unpleasant characters and nasty tense dialogue? It's the end of the world; things are falling apart. They haven't sealed themselves off in this series of linked corridors and windowless rooms just to sit down for tea.

And it makes sense that Day (conceptually the most ambitious of Romero's Dead films) should also be the most spatially constrained (he turned down extra funding to do an "R" rated movie)--instead of showing you the world taken over by zombies Romero hit upon the possibly genius idea of showing a blank wall (much of the film was shot in an actual subterranean location--the Wampum Mine a former limestone mine turned storage facility near Pittsburgh) and telling you that beyond the wall is a world taken over by zombies. Our imagination went into overdrive accordingly, and claustrophobia and the stench of desperation from the characters completed the illusion--of a dead-end no-win scenario, of a candle burning out at both ends, of rats crammed in a tight space tearing each other to pieces.

This is black comedy on the order of Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove--the world ending not with a bang but the steady sound of chewing. If Archimedes once said "Give me a place to stand and I will move the Earth" and someone remarked of Strangelove's War Room "give me a place to sit down and I will destroy it" Day seems to add an even grimmer corollary: "give me a hole to hide in and I will wait for it to pass." Day turns everything on its head--as with 2001 (yet another Kubrick film), the most sympathetic character onscreen isn't a member of the species we're supposed to identify with but one of the enemy, able to fulfill both our dearest wishes (human contact perhaps even human affection with one of the undead) and worst fears (a zombie with a gun). Strangest of all (perhaps not, if you know human nature) is the fact that the zombies waiting outside the wire fence to chomp on the remaining humans have nowhere near the ferocity of the humans brooding inside, waiting for some slight opportunity to turn some small advantage into another few days' worth of survival, even (or especially) at the expense of everyone else.

Midway through the film is a speech that puts everything--the film, Romero's vision, humanity, the world--into perspective:

"Hey you know what they keep down here in this cave? Man they got the books and the records of the top 100 companies. They got the Defense Department budget down here. And they got the negatives for all your favorite movies. They got microfilm with tax return and newspaper stories. They got immigration records census reports and they got the accounts of all the wars and plane crashes and volcano eruptions and earthquakes and fires and floods and all the other disasters that interrupted the flow of things in the good ole U.S. of A.

"Now what does it matter Sarah darling? All this filing and record keeping? We ever gonna give a shit? We even gonna get a chance to see it all? This is a great big fourteen-mile tombstone."

Macbeth's "Tomorrow" speech expanded. Put that way the recent crash of the sub-prime lending market doesn't seem all that bad.

While listening to the DVD bonus features I couldn't help noting that prosthetic effects legend Tom Savini's stated approach to makeup--the use of misdirection and on-camera effects--isn't too far from what classic stage magicians used to do. There's something simple and appealing to his and Romero's approach to filmmaking that CGI can never evoke no matter how many pixels they pour onscreen. Maybe it's the old-fashioned way the artist collaborates with the audience in creating the effect, a shared willed illusion--unlike computer geeks nowadays who present CGI baldly, as a 100-percent realistic image without recognizing the fact that perfect realism is found at the tip of an asymptotic curve no amount of programming or computing power is ever going to approach much less touch; you have to cheat a little.

And it's not just the relentless flesh-eating, depicted here on an unheard-of scale (as Joe Bob Briggs once put it: "Approximately 1,500 zombies. A 92 on the Vomit Meter. 435 gallons blood. Nine dead bodies. Thirty-seven undead dead bodies. Two dead breasts. Three and a half heads roll. Ears roll. Fingers roll. Arms roll. Stomachs roll. Necks roll. Cheeks roll. Eyeball rolls. Guts roll."); Romero actually knows how to direct thriller sequences, using simple camera setups and precise but distinctively un-strobelike editing to enhance the action, not chop it up Black-and-Decker style into generic effluvium. He knows how to sustain a shot, stretching the suspense to almost unbearable length; he also knows how to use silence and the well-timed pause (instead of a really loud rock score) to allow us to strain our ears and listen for shuffling movement, letting our sensibilities do most of the work for him. This is filmmaking so old-fashioned it seems refreshing even revolutionary (imagine that, a horror director that didn't start out in commercials or music videos!).

Romero eschews all the newfangled fast-moving zombie nonsense because he knows that the living dead aren't just hyped-up humans on drugs (that's a different genre altogether, something 28 Days which I otherwise didn't much like at least acknowledged) but corpses--people who have suffered enough cellular damage to their bodies overall that vital processes have shut down. You don't expect someone like that to suddenly rear up and sprint like a quarterback anymore than you expect someone with a broken leg or crushed ankle to do the same.

An especially vivid passage from Dickens' Oliver Twist gives us I think a clue as to why Romero's zombies are so much more memorable:

--these fears were nothing compared to the sense that haunted him of that morning's ghastly figure following at his heels...He could hear its garments rustling in the leaves, and every breath of wind came laden with that last low cry. If he stopped, it did the same. If he ran, it followed--not running too--that would have been a relief--but like a corpse endowed with the mere machinery of life, and borne on one slow melancholy wind that never rose and fell.

See the words "it followed--not running too--that would have been a relief" nailed it for me. Romero's zombies are frightening because they're never in a hurry; they operate on a different sense of time from our own, and we feel no matter how fast we run that they will somehow overtake us--if not now, later; if not today, tomorrow. With today's sprinting zombies you feel as if a tranquilizer and a long hot shower might help soothe their temper; they're stricken with anxiety and are hilariously insecure. Not so with Romero's undead: they seem as inevitable as the cold that will someday creep into our bones, and invariably inevitably claim us for its own.



Xian said...

Excellent analysis with wonderful citations to other artforms... A very good read about a very misunderstood film, but really one of the great, grim films of humanity on the verge of inevitable collapse. And yes, zombies don't run. That's just sillytalk.

Noel Vera said...

Sillytalk, crazytalk and just plain notveryimpressivetalk. Thanks!

martin billheimer said...

Brilliant work on a great political director. Mr. Vera, you are the real successor to Manny Farber, with your own inimitable style. We don't have writers like you in the US, except for Rosenbaum. Now, off to rewatch Day, which I misunderstood in many ways until now.

Noel Vera said...

Thanks for the kind words!