By Noel Vera
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
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
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
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
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.
the film is a speech that puts everything--the film, Romero's vision,
the world, humanity, everything--into perspective:
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.
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!"
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.
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?).
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
vivid passage from Dickens' Oliver Twist gives us, I think, a clue
as to why Romero's zombies are so much more memorable:
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.
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