Monday, November 20, 2006

Day of the Dead



The zombies are better. There's no question about that.

Day started very strong, with the helicopter-level view of the blasted-out landscape and the much-improved zombies staggering around. The subsequent portion introducing the setup in the underground base was intriguing and suspenseful, and the mad doctor trying to "domesticate" the zombies (having tacitly given up on solving or understanding the underlying problem) was an interesting concept.

But the movie started to lose my interest about halfway through, when the scenery-chewing Joe Pilato starts laying down his ultimata to everyone. It wasn't so much tht the narrative cohesion got sloppy (although it did, for the first time in a Dead picture, in my opinion) but the complete stupidity of the military personnel grated on me as being simply not plausible. Romero (like Stephen King) has proven himself as having a masterful skill at conveying how panic and disorder overtakes the discipline of human behavior, and he showed this brilliantly in the first two movies, but here, it seemed to fall flat. Compare the solders in The Stand, throughout the entire first third of the book, in the "Ray Flowers" sequence as well as in the underground base, to see a vastly superior handling of the same idea.

The freaked-out soldier who sabotages the elevator and lets the zombies in made no sense to me. It seemed like pure plot device. In general, the behavior of everyone in the movie was bothering me. How far along in the zombie crisis do you have to be before you get this level of anarchy and chaos? It's interesting that Day of the Dead came out a year before Aliens, since the two movies have a more than passing resemblance (with the group of ineffectual military types and the tough female civilian who out-classes them in various ways). But the soldiers in this movie make the soldiers in Aliens look like the world's most perfect commando team -- and the whole point of Cameron's movie is that the military order breaks down almost immediately and it takes a civilian mind to organize them into a fighting force that has some kind of a chance. Captain Rhodes and his cronies are miserably stupid fools, and come off like reluctantly conscripted bums rather than the kind of trained personnel you'd find in circumstances like these.

I liked "Bub" until he got angry over "Frankenstein's" corpse, because I just felt that was really pushing it. If they're that smart, intrinsically, the entire premise starts to wobble and come apart. I've watched the climax of Dawn a few times and the final ten minutes of Stephen's ("Flyboy's") existence (like the last minute of David Naughton's werewolf-life, where it seems for a moment that he recognizes Jenny Agutter before jumping towards her) is heartbreaking and shocking at the same time. Stephen retained just enough of his marbles to tear through that wall they'd built, which (like almost everything in Dawn) resonates with symbolism and tragedy and horror. "Bub's" confrontation with Captain Rhodes was of the far-more-conventional "just deserts" variety, designed to get the audience cheering as an unlikable character gets his.

Other points:

1) There weren't nearly enough "good guys" coming back as zombies! In fact, were there any? It seems to me that that's the whole point (or at least a major portion of it), just like in vampire movies. I kept waiting for one of the two murdered male scientists to come out of the woodwork, but they never did.

2) Can you really tear someone's skin off with your fingernails? Or decapitate a man just by giving his head a good yank? Can a human body be pulled apart like that, just using one's fingers? The zombies aren't super-strong or anything; that's proven every time a live person shoves them away or hits them with a plank to immobilize them. But, somehow, they manage to completely disembowel and dismember living people with just a few pawing motions. (Captain Rhodes in particular comes apart about as easily as a badly-made sandwich.)

3) In general, the visual production wasn't nearly as fine as it was the last two times around. Granted, the Savini effects were vastly superior (despite the "easy-open" people mentioned above) but the compositional flair and masterful cutting rhythms of the first two movies seemed much more mediocre here.

4) When someone's spraying machine gun fire at a crowd of advancing zombies (and, inevitably, going "Yeeaarrghh"), why don't they spray the bullets at the zombie's heads rather than across their midsections, which doesn't even slow them down?

5) The entire world has been overrun by zombies and the movie has to resort to dream sequences to scare me? Maybe I'm overreacting but I hate surprise dream sequences. (I mentioned Aliens, which has its own unnecessary dream sequence at the beginning). There's just got to be better ways to scare me than that. (I give a break to An American Werewolf in London because the dream sequences are so good, and because they convey something important to the story.)

6) So it's November 4th. (Final shot of the film.) So what?

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is basically the kind of thing I was expecting from Romero movies in general (before I saw the first two zombie pictures): a series of set pieces designed to show off Tom Savini's talents at making anatomy come messily apart. I think the people who say "no thank you" to this kind of movie are picturing something like this.

By contrast, I have to emphasize again just how brilliant and innovative (and meaningful) the first two movies are. Night and Dawn are landmarks, each deserving its place in cinema history in its own way. This movie is something altogether different. Yes, we get more of the story, and the essential concept (underground bunker where they're desperately trying to solve the problem) is sound, but a little more Andromeda Strain and a little less Friday the 13th would have made a tremendous difference.

6 comments:

JPX said...

Terrific review, but how many stars? My favorite line, "Captain Rhodes in particular comes apart about as easily as a badly-made sandwich.)"

FYI, I think you mean "Bub" not "Bud"

So do you have Land of the Dead in your Netflix yet?

JPX said...

I love the pic you posted, by the way.

Jordan said...

I fixed "Bub," thanks.

I've got the Dawn remake arriving today, and that's enough zombies for a while (unless someone tells me that Land is not to be missed).

Summerisle said...

Land can be missed... for now.

Great to see you on board with the reviews! And great Day of the Dead assessment. It's true, they violate many laws of anatomy for the sake of showing off gore.

I've always maintained that Day of the Dead is one step forward, two steps back. It raises more questions than it answers and as I point out whenever I get the chance: I hate every character in the movie. Also, the bleak spatial limitations annoy/depress me.

By the way Jordan, I did get your email but have not responded because my world has stopped until I finish my reviews!

Octopunk said...

Great review -- if I may, a perfect summation of the Romero evo/devolution seen from the perspective of a "normal" person, i.e. not someone who annually beats themselves about the head with the genre like it was a pillowcase full of squirrels.

Night and Dawn are the movies that have that Certain Something that make them the classics they are; Day and Land don't quite hit it (although Land is worth checking out some day when you're in the mood).

JPX said...

I like the cheesey Day of the Dead soundtrack and have the LP, how's that for fanboyism?