Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Halloween / George Romero Tribute Edition: "Day of the Dead" and "Land of the Dead"

Day of the Dead / Land of the Dead
I've been a fan of zombie movies my entire life, so it definitely bummed me out when George Romero passed away back in July. Whenever a filmmaker I like dies, I always revisit their work. With Romero, I knew I had to watch Day of the Dead again since it's my all-time favorite zombie movie. I bought the blu-ray (which looks great, by the way) even though I already have the DVD (it's that cool one with the Bub cover flap); I love this one enough to own it twice. In the documentary on the blu-ray, a producer mentions that Romero had written a much larger (in scope) film, but budget constraints forced him to scale it back. The larger version ended up becoming Land of the Dead (a movie I also own), so I figured this made for a good double feature for a Romero tribute and for Halloween, especially since Night and Dawn get most of the attention when it comes to Romero.

Romero seemed to work best when forced to go small. Night takes place in a single house. Dawn is in a mall. And Day takes place in a cave/storage facility. These small locations allow for more character building, and it frees up the budget to go all out on the makeup and gore. This is why I love Day. It's up there with The Thing for having some of the most disturbing practical effects of all time. The zombies may look more "Thriller" than Walking Dead, and the blood is candy red, but it's still disgusting...and great. The effects in Land are still good (the zombies look much better) and the feast sequence has its moments (the belly button ring being ripped out comes to mind), but there are bits of CG mixed in there, as well. It's not terrible CG, but it foreshadowed its much heavier use in Diary of the Dead. It's unfortunate that Romero couldn't get the budget to go full practical with the blood and guts.

With Romero, you come for the gore, but stay for the social commentary. Anyone can make a gory movie, but Romero could also make his films socially relevant, funny, disturbing, and philosophical. Something that is lost in many zombie stories today is the treatment of the zombies themselves and what it all means for humanity as a whole. That's not to say a show like The Walking Dead is lacking in the drama department; it isn't. But the focus there is solely on the characters surviving; they never stop to consider the world at large. If they do talk about the world at large, any big thoughts are usually dismissed with an answer along the lines of "Surviving is all that matters now." 

Whereas Day of the Dead has a lengthy scene in the middle of the movie in which John, the seemingly uncaring Jamaican helicopter pilot (greatest character description ever?), questions the whole point of humanity's "progress." There is no action or gore during this scene, yet it's one of my favorite moments in the film. The question, "Why bother figuring out why the zombie apocalypse, or anything at all for that matter, happened?" is asked, and it makes you think beyond the movie itself. John suggests that trying to figure things out might have led God to bring this curse on humanity, so they should give up trying to figure it out and start humanity over from scratch, and just live. It can come across as anti-scientific, but I think it's more about how we can't see the forest for the trees. It also works as a metaphor for enjoying the zombie genre: who cares why it happened, just enjoy the gore and violence. And for whatever reason, all of this being presented with a Jamaican accent makes it even better.

That might seem like way too much thinking for the zombie genre, but Romero's movies in particular were filled with very intentional social commentary concerning race (Night), consumerism (Dawn), militarism and scientific study (Day), and class struggle (Land). That's what makes this genre so great. If it was just gore, it wouldn't be this popular. Whether viewers realize it or not, they're drawn in by those themes.

More than anything, though, these films are entertaining. I love Day because of how heightened so many of the characters are. Joe Pilato, as the psychotic Rhodes, makes the film. He pretty much screams every line, which makes gems like, "I'm running this monkey farm now, Frankenstein, and I want to know what the fuck you're doing with my time!" Also, he yells "Choke on 'em!" as zombies feast on his entrails. It just doesn't get better than that. Steele and Rickles, equally psychotic, are a highlight, as well. It's overacting to be sure, but it's also plausible that people would get this crazy in that scenario.

Land doesn't compare to Day in the crazy character department, but it still has some great moments. Dennis Hopper's goofy ruse of "Watch out! Get down quick!" to murder an associate only to find out seconds later it was unnecessary always cracks me up.

Before I move my focus towards Land, however, I feel obligated to just spout off all the other reasons I love Day so much. So here goes, in no attempt of organization. The music: the very 80s score might come across as laughable for some, but it fit perfectly for me. I can't explain why, but the score made this feel more like the end of the world than more traditional movie music would have. I might just be crazy, but the music worked completely for me. They call the zombies "dumb fucks" multiple times. Rhodes calls a zombie a "pus fuck." There are plenty of goofy zombies (clown, football player, ballerina), which means these people died while wearing these outfits, which is hilarious to me. Miguel saying, "So fucking what?" That one zombie that steps off the platform too early and falls. The shovel kill. The way Rickles laughs. And finally, the location in general. The cave/storage facility is a real place in Pennsylvania, and I cannot think of a better actual filming location for a zombie movie. Okay, now on to Land.

Land of the Dead was something entirely different for Romero. The focus of his series began shifting to the zombies in Day with Bub learning to use a gun by the end. With Land the zombies making their way to the city is as focused on as the human story. The humans began changing more with these two films, too. There have been terrible people in all the movies, but they seem to have taken over in Day and Land. With all the evil humans around, you end up rooting for the zombies not for the gore, but because they seem like better people...even though they eat people.

This is why Land deserves a bit more love than it gets. Romero leaned into his social commentary more in this film than any of the other Deads. By turning the zombies into the heroes of the story, you see humanity in a villainous light. It's a very dark, disturbing message. The film suggests that zombies are the logical next step in evolution. Land was Romero's first zombie movie since Day, and it seems like he returned to the genre because he hated seeing the treatment of zombies. Zombies are mainly used as plot points now, and Romero wanted to make them characters again. He certainly did that in Land

The first time I saw Land in the theater I was too amped to see a new Romero movie to give much thought to the treatment of zombies. Rewatching it recently, it was all I could think about. All of the humans truly seem like secondary characters this time around. There are still good and bad humans, but the majority are terrible. Romero ditched any semblance of subtlety this time around and presented humans as openly worse than zombies. 

The lack of subtlety is not a critique. At this point in the Romero universe, any attempt at human decency would have been long gone. The setup of Land is that the rich get to live in luxury condos while the poor live in slums, and it will always be that way. The poor are given the hope that they can get to the top, but it's a lie. This is certainly a thinly veiled (okay, not veiled at all) criticism of capitalism. But I think it's more about where humans would eventually go in a zombie world. I believe this scenario could definitely play out. Of course, this is all based on the idea that an economy would still exist in the zombie apocalypse, and I find that the most implausible aspect of the film. But if money did still matter, Land is a decent prediction of what could happen.

Before I wrap things up, here are my favorite Land moments. The aforementioned Hopper scene. John Leguizamo wanting to become a zombie (mainly because I would be the same way in that scenario; why not see what it's like to be a zombie?). Using fireworks to distract zombies. The Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright cameos. Tom Savini! More goofy zombies; apparently an entire band died in their uniforms.

George Romero may have been known for making (amazing) zombie films, but these movies were always about humanity. The gore is top notch and makes these movies endlessly rewatchable and enjoyable, but the social commentary he inserted increasingly in each film makes them classics in my collection. It's not like Romero's social critiques are all that original or anything (it's not hard to look at consumers as brainless zombies), it's that he knew these films needed something more than gore. If I'm going to watch two hours of anti-human propaganda, then I at least want to see some amazing practical gore. George Romero was more than capable of providing that, and he will be sorely missed.

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