"I've seen enough not to see any more," he says. "Recent
horror movies lack soul – and it's not just horror. Take
ATONEMENT: I brought some tissues with me expecting to
shed a tear, and I didn't. Later, I watched an old Bette Davis
movie – the kind of thing you smile at because it's so
old-fashioned, but when it's over, you do shed a tear."
Director George Romero
interviewed in Cinefantastique
It's a curious aspect of human creativity. What is 'soul' outside of the rather silly, childishly ever-hopeful, Christian interpretation of one's essence above and beyond the viscera, bones, organs and blood that make up each of us? Somehow I think I'm going to be returning to make-up and viscera in this review. Savini, I salute you. Soul in art, I suppose, is that indefinable spark that moves us beyond the canvas and the mundane actuality of paint and brushstroke. In movies, for me, it boils down to caring and if the concept of the tale told is more fantastic in the true sense of the world, (the zombie genre fits this bill rather snugly), it takes a great film-maker to invest his or her work with the requisite amount of soul. Romero has a valid point and it's too neat and tidy to round up the usual suspects (but I'm going to anyway); the proliferation of CG; the video game paradigm; the invasion of the spectacular over the intimate and, of course, the darkly cynical and all too apathetic age in which we live.
But if our societies get the leaders they deserve, then maybe it's the same case regarding cinematic trends. Does a society get the movies it deserves? Boy, how deserving did we have to be for Reno 911: Miami? Back in 1985, things were very different. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and US President and divorced ex-actor Ronald Reagan were the primary power players who began an erosion of social responsibility that has reached its nadir today in our collective denial of climate change. But hey ho, that's another review (but still a nod in your direction, Fanny Armstrong, for your rather superb Age Of Stupid). This was an age in which parody was almost obsolete. Yes, TV gems like Spittin' Image did a great job (and like most things, changed nothing) but the world's sheep were being shepherded by a man and a woman with an absurdly insular and over-powering sense of righteousness, voicing their cry of "I believe this to be good therefore it IS good for everyone and you'd have to be crazy to disagree with us,"... This so called 'leadership' shattered social cohesion as surely as if they'd announced that cancer was only ever passed from husband to wife. Oh, the mid 80s was not a fun time to be a socially responsible individual. So all power to the Romeros of the world who bucked the system and thank hell for the zombie, a rather decent metaphor and prop to allow them to buck as strongly as possible.
Here's a choice. You're an artist and/or craftsperson. The money people offer you X to make your movie and deliver what they consider to be an acceptable level of gore. You want to push a few envelopes and make a film that will be unrated (commercial death by any other name). But now you'll only get half X. Pop quiz... Romero stuck to his guts, uh... guns and made my favourite – and curiously his favourite – of his Dead oeuvre. Day of the Dead was the first time I 'got' the zombie movie. Yes, I'd seen the others but didn't really connect as much as I appreciated the work involved. There was something about the cast and story of Day that really appealed to me. The central metaphors inherent in this genre suddenly started to gel and although I never felt any real fear as an audience member, there were other parts of my brain that were activated. And Day is almost the prototype zombie movie according to the requisites of the genre as laid out by my humble fellow scribe and editor, Slarek (click here for details).
Having seen Day of the Dead twice in the last afternoon in order to solidify a few ideas about the movie, I'm consistently struck on well performed it is. There is no winking to the camera. This is desperate, dark stuff front-lining stupidity and the perils of letting men – with the morals of a hippo with absolutely no formal education – loose with arms, severed or bullet-firing. And it plays out as realistically as it would were this situation an actual one. It's really the key to these dramas – play it like you mean it. And these mean bastards really mean it, gun barrels aimed at so much meat. The military doesn't so much get a bad rap from Romero as it does – insert bad Eminem joke here. This is the kind of military whose collective humility and compassion couldn't sink a paper boat. We are talking brutish, simple men (simple, yes, like Neanderthals) whose sense of self-preservation is only just higher than their callous disregard for life, dead or alive.
Now in the hands of James Cameron (and Jenette Goldstein as Vasquez in Aliens, you know who you are), this military type not only bores me rigid, it also turns the military folk into a laughing beef stock. Romero (how does he do this?) actually makes these men real and therefore terrifying. None more so is the man in charge, the delicious über-bastard, Joe Pilato as Captain Rhodes. He should register over the top. He should. We should be able to sneer at the man's dependence on weaponry and absurd prejudice of science. We should. And all around him should denounce the little bastard or shoot the guy as it increasingly becomes necessary. But (in order), he doesn't, we can't and they can't. He's a real poison in the movie and woe betide anyone who chooses to cross the sanity-challenged, stressed out, bullet provider. And then there's the first zombie with a soul, Bub, who knows exactly what to do when it comes to Captain Rhodes.
The narrative is straightforward. A small group of scientists land at random spots in Florida via a helicopter looking for survivors of a recent zombie holocaust. They return to an underground army base where a small band of military types rule the roost, squawk loudly and denounce the use of any experimentation. Operating on the freshly dead in an attempt to understand and (god forbid) domesticate the zombie hordes, is Logan (played by Richard Liberty with a gore-fixated relish last seen by Joachim Phoenix's Emperor in Gladiator). It doesn't help that the chief female scientist Sarah (Lori Cardille) is romantically linked with Miguel (Anthony Dileo Jnr.) who's an army private broken by his experiences. To say tensions are running higher than usual is an epic understatement and although you have a pretty strong idea how this will play out, the movie's pace and commitment keep you glued to the screen.
Speaking of viscous sticky stuff, it's time to praise the work of gore effects maestro Tom Savini. His work here is exemplary. You never question the veracity of what you're seeing and see it you do – this is no coy "Oh, the imagination can conjure up far scarier stuff than seeing the actual event..." evasion. Well, Romero was one of the first film-makers to show you the full on body horror with an almost malicious glee. My favourite moment of body-ripping disgust is the two screams of terror from one of the secondary soldier characters – it may even be the same scream doubled up and pitched higher – as his head is dragged bowling-ball style off his torso, eye sockets as convenient finger holes. I know it may be odd to have a favourite 'gore' moment but if I acknowledge my enjoyment of the genre, it seems remiss not to enjoy the bad things happening to bad people. The staging of this event is almost art (the arms tearing at his torso forming a flower-like star shape has a horrific beauty to it).
There are other small pleasures dotted throughout. Hip-flasked Bill (Jarlath Conroy), a desiccated Irish Rowan Atkinson lookalike, provides a lot of the humour (and yes, it's grim humour). The trio of a scientist, a support worker and a helicopter pilot is enough to root for while the zombies inevitably make their underground appearance. The comeuppance for the boys in fatigues is absolute (as it inevitably must be) and the carnival music (could it be sampled Jamaican steel drums?) that characterises John the pilot's (Terry Alexander) approach to this grim life always makes me smile. Howard Sherman's touching performance as 'Bub' the captive zombie is a real treat. Pathos is such an unexpected emotion to feel for a character that would normally want to runs his hands through your intestines. The bad guy's demise has been oft quoted in subsequent 'hommaging' genre works (take a bow, Charlie Booker's Dead Set and Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead). There is a powerful dream sequence at the very start that contains a delicious shock of surprise, one that riffs off Polanski's shocker, Repulsion. And again I must stress the commitment of the performances. It makes the film proud despite its un-dead nature. I can't abide those who expect a worsening of standards based on their own genre likes and dislikes. There are levels of excellence even in zombie movies and while any sequel cannot have that raw shock of seeing Night of the Living Dead for the first time, its second sequel has enough gory pleasures of its own to savour.
It's perhaps deliberately ironic that a film titled Day of the Dead takes place largely underground and by artificial light. This can at first glance make the transfer feel less obviously and consistently crisp that the one on Arrow's Dawn of the Dead Blu-ray, but watch it in the right lighting conditions (that means pulling the curtains and lowering the lights if you've got a plasma screen) and you'll soon see that it's every bit it's equal and easily outstrips its DVD predecessors. This is most obviously evident in scenes where the lighting has more contrast (the early arrival by helicopter, Sarah's introduction to 'The Ritz'), and as so often with HD transfers from 35mm, there's a richness to the image that you can't imagine its digital equivalent producing. The colour palette is sometimes a little muted but I have no doubt at all this was intentional, and there's no trace anywhere of dust or damage – the print here really is spotless. Don't got expecting Transformers-style super-sharpness – this was a low budget genre work shot largely underground in the mid-1980s – but this is far and away the best I've ever seen the film look. In keeping with the current trend for filling the 16:9 screen. The original 1.85:1 picture has been slightly modified to 1.78:1.
The original Dolby 2.0 mono soundtrack has been included, but has been joined here by a 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio track that plays as standard 5.1 DTS on non-HD enabled amps. Whether it's a remix or a re-master of the original track is hard to say, but there's a noticeable difference between the two, with improved clarity of voices and effects on the DTS and no trace of the background fluff that can sometimes be heard on the mono track. The slight treble clipping on some of the dialogue is still there but less pronounced, and the music sounds really benefits from the clean-up.
Following on from their fine three-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo release of Dawn of the Dead, Arrow have repeated the formula here by putting the main feature and three of the extras on a Blu-ray disc and the rest of the standard definition extras on a separate DVD. Some have been sourced from Anchor Bay's 2003 US double-DVD set, but one of the key extras from that set, and from the same company's 2007 Blu-ray edition, is conspicuously missing here, namely the commentary track with George Romero, make-up effects wizard Tom Savini, production designer Cletus Anderson and actress Lori Cardille. Its absence is really felt, narrowing Romero's vocal contribution to to his interview on the Many Days documentary below.
The first three extras are on the Blu-ray.
Make-up Effects Crew Commentary
Special effects make-up artists Everett Burrell, Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger and Mike Deak open a few beers and party their way through a lively and good natured commentary, that despite all the joking about and laughing is both entertaining and informative, being loaded with anecdotes and detail on how particular effects were achieved. Working on the film was clearly a blast and was almost single-handedly responsible for launching the careers of all four and a number of others besides. Ground covered, sometimes in quite a bit of detail, includes Romero's more epic original conception for the film (this gets mentioned a lot throughout the extras), working in the Wampum Mine location (you blew your nose at the end of the day and it came out black), the dangerous nature and escalation of Tom Savini's practical jokes ("Near-death experiences and Tom go hand-in-hand"), the music they listened to on set, Howard Sherman's performance as Bub, some of creepier fan mail sent to Savini, the dangers of blank cartridges that backfire, and a whole lot more. Much of it is screen-specific, to the point where they enthusiastically point things out ("Hang on, scary bit coming up!"), but they get repeatedly diverted by their own always interesting memories and anecdotes. Great fun and packed with information, it nonetheless does approach the film from a very specific perspective, and the insight into the story, character and specific scenes that a Romero commentary would doubtless have provided is sorely missed. As far as I am aware this commentary was not included on any of the US Anchor Bay releases, so it's intriguing to hear one of the effects team here refer to a second commentary in which Romero will be participating. The plot thickens.
Joe of the Dead (50:58)
An in-depth interview with Joe Pilato, whose current quasi-beatnik appearance is light years from his character of Captain Rhodes, as, I was relieved to learn, are his politics. Pilato recalls how he got into acting and landed his roles in Dawn of the Dead and Knightriders, how he approached the character of Rhodes, what it's like to work with Romero, Savini's sometimes insane sense of humour, the now legendary horrors of filming a key death scene, and how the only two lines he came up with – "Puss-fuck" and "Choke on 'em!" – have become fan favourites. He talks about his subsequent work and the roles he just missed landing and is enthusiastic about a Night of the Living Dead puppet show that played at one of the conventions. Although an HD extra, this doesn't look as if it was shot on that format – a genuinely high definition still of Romero gives you something to compare the rest with.
Travelogue 09 Tour (17:49)
A record of a publicity tour organised by Arrow films and the Cult Fiction DVD Store in Edinburgh in which actors Joe Pilato and Dawn of the Dead's Ken Foree attend fan screenings in Dublin, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Or at least I assume they both do, as after a couple of photos at the start, Ken Foree is seen no more and it's very much Pilato's show. Fortunately he rises to the occasion, holding court for audience questions and signing autographs (just about everyone wants him to write either "choke on 'em" or "puss-fuck," with the latter proving the more popular, at least if the editor is to be believed). Again this doesn't look like it was shot on the format it's been presented in, but is still snappily put together.
The rest of the extras are on the DVD.
The Many Days of Day of the Dead (38:42)
Borrowed from the US Anchor Bay release, this busy and enjoyable retrospective documentary covers all of the expected areas in the sort of detail you'd hope from such a piece. Driven along by interviews with some of the key cast and crew, it's a great first stop for newcomers (after they've watched the main feature, of course) and a useful round-up of information and anecdotes for the more dedicated fans, and this is the only time in this two-disc set that we get to hear from Romero himself.
Behind the Zombies Footage (20:19)
Tom Savini's own footage of the making of the film inevitably focuses largely on the make-up and effects and those playing the zombies. But it's still welcome and enthralling stuff, with clear explanations provided for how blood and explosive squibs are rigged and a good look at the workings of the mechanical severed head. This is another import from the Anchor Bay disc.
The Audio Recollections of Richard Liberty (15:41)
Also from the Anchor Bay disc is this audio interview with actor Richard Liberty, who plays Logan, the film's obsessive medical experimentalist, a role that was specifically written for him. Some useful ground is covered – including how he first came to work with Romero on The Crazies, the relationship between his character and Bub and the impact it had on his film career (it remains his favourite film acting experience to this day) – it sounds if it was recorded on a mobile phone while he and two interviewees were out jogging in a force 9 gale.
TV Ads of the Dead (2:27)
Four TV ads from the film that run consecutively. The last one appears to have been sourced from low band tape.
Romero's credits as director, writer, producer and editor.
Photo Album of the Dead
Nineteen iffy quality stills, mainly of zombie make-up.
Souvenirs of the Dead
Twenty-nine examples of VHS and DVD box art, lobby cards, album covers, t-shirts and more.
Wampum Mine Promo (8:11)
One of those horrible industrial promotional films (I can't talk, I've worked on a couple) driven by a Mr. Reasonable voice-over and royalty-free music, but this one's for the Gateway Commerce Centre, aka the Wampum Mine, the location in which Day of the Dead was filmed. Interesting to see how it really looks, but even at just eight minutes it's tough to sit through the whole thing and stay focussed.
Also included is a Re-Release Trailer for Night of the Living Dead (2:01) and the Original Trailer for Dawn of the Dead (2:45).
Included in the packaging is a booklet entitled For Every Dawn There is a Day, in which Callum Waddell, the man behind the UK exclusive extras on the Blu-ray, looks at the film from an artistic, generic and socio-political viewpoint and the results make for damned fine reading. He includes extracts from interviews with Romero and his collaborators and unsurprisingly (but still pleasingly) is not a fan of Steve Miner's 2005 remake, though includes a nice quote from Romero (which itself quotes Stephen King) on that whole issue.
Also promised for the release disc is the usual reversible sleeve artwork and double-sided fold-out poster, and Day Of The Dead: Desertion – an all new exclusive 24-page collector's comic featuring new Bub storyline, but these were not included with the review disc.
The darkest of Romero's original trilogy still leaves most of the genre's subsequent efforts in the shade, and its vivisection subtext remains as potent and relevant as Day's consumerist critique. Despite a slight softness to some of the shots, the transfer is still impressive and easily justifies the upgrade from DVD. The lack of a Romero-led commentary is a real shame, but the one included here is still great fun and packed with detail, and the other included extras provide a good deal of (if not total) compensation. For the film, the transfer and what is included it definitely comes recommended – hardcore fans will already have one of the Anchor Bay releases and will have to make a judgement call on whether the extras exclusive to this release make it worth the additional purchase.