Dead Ahead
By Noel Vera

Day Of The Dead
Dir: George Romero (1985)

The Dead movies aren't so much examples of sophisticated filmmaking as they are powerful metaphors given evocatively free rein by a cunning and 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 the Vietnam War) 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 mimicked perfectly 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 were expecting 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 a hellhole of a pressure-cooker set to 'apocalypse.'

Unpleasant characters and nasty, tense dialogue? It's the end of the world; things are falling apart. They're not going to sit down to drink tea, they're going to fight each other tooth and nail for whatever little is left worth having.

And it actually 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 brilliant, 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, 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 the characters gave off completed the illusion--of a dead-end, no-win situation, of a candle burnt out at both ends, of rats crammed in a tight space tearing themselves into 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 chomping. Strange how Day brings everything around to a full circle--as with 2001 (yet another Kubrick film), the most sympathetic character onscreen isn't any 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 intelligent enough to pick up and shoot a gun).

Strangest of all, the ferocity of the zombies waiting outside the wire fence to chew on the remaining humans is nothing compared to the ferocity with which said humans fight each other to survive, if only for a few more days.

Midway through the film is a speech that puts everything--the film, Romero's vision, the world, humanity, everything--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 14 mile tombstone!"

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

While I was listening to the DVD bonus features, I couldn't help noting that prosthetic effects legend Tom Savini's comments on his approach to makeup--the use of misdirection, and of on-camera effects--isn't too far from what classic stage magicians used to do, that there's something simple and appealing to his and Romero's approach to filmmaking that CGI doesn't even bother to attempt.

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 the CGI effect baldly, as a 100-percent realistic image, without recognizing the fact that perfect realism is found at the tip of an asymptotic curve, one that 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, a horror director that didn't start out in commercials or music videos! Isn't that like, well, cool?).

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, it's those words "it followed--not running too--that would have been a relief" that nail 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 improve their mood. Not so with Romero's undead: they seem as inevitable as the cold that will someday creep up our bones, and invariably, inevitably claim us for its own.

Comments? Email me at

For more... email with the message, "Put me on your mailing list."

November 9, 2007