November 05, 2013

It's A Very Zombie Halloween With George A. Romero's Original DEAD Trilogy

"When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the Earth."
After spending a month watching almost nothing but horror films, I had big plans to cap it all off for Halloween.  The Brattle was showing Night Of The Living Dead with a live band providing an alternative score to the film on October 30th and, as luck would have it, the Coolidge was showing Dawn Of The Dead on Halloween night.  That was just too good an opportunity to pass up, so I made sure to grab Day Of The Dead from Netflix well in advance and planned to go through the entire trilogy in order.

Then the World Series went to six games.

If I had tried to squeeze in the Brattle screening I would have missed the first half of the potentially clinching game and then had serious trouble trying to get into a bar for the last few innings.  So I made an executive decision and skipped out on that evening's showing, but since I'd already purchased my ticket for Dawn Of The Dead the following night I had no choice but to pray there wouldn't be a Game 7 and settle for watching the three films out of order.  Certainly not ideal, but still better than nothing.

I love that all three Dead movies exist in a shared universe and that you can see the zombie infestation growing exponentially worse and worse over the course of the trilogy.  Not only that, but each story increases in scope as well.  Night introduces the very first zombie attacks and keeps the action isolated to a handful of strangers who've barricaded themselves into a remote farmhouse.  Their only objective is survival, staying alive long enough to find some kind of help.  They don't know exactly what's happening or why, but such concerns are academic when there's a horde of ghouls (the word "zombie is never spoken) banging down the front door.  We do hear some radio and television news reporters struggling to get a handle on exactly what's happening out there and in fact the initial reports are classified simply as mass murders with an element of cannibalism.  It's not until the president starts convening with NASA scientists that it becomes clear that something far stranger is afoot.

PS: Night clearly attributes the zombies to radiation carried by a satellite returning from Venus.  That's about one step shy of an alien infestation or biological attack.  Why didn't anyone ever tell me this?  How did I not know that Romero's zombies actually come from space??

These early zombies also exhibit behavior would be considered pretty a-typical these days; a few of them use rocks and clubs to smash in windows or beat down doors and one even stabs a woman to death with a gardening trowel.  You don't often see zombies using tools in that way and indeed such unique behavior would go on to become a major plot point for Romero down the line.  From a visual standpoint, Romero's first batch of zombies are almost charmingly simple compared to the kind of stuff now seen every week on The Walking Dead.  The makeup isn't overly complex and the majority of the zombies simply appear gaunt and pale with a detached look in their eyes.  There are a few standouts, but most of the extras don't feature severed limbs, rotting flesh or festering wounds.  That's fine though, because the black and white aesthetic gives Romero a lot more bang for his few bucks and gives the nighttime setting a stronger sense of menace.

Dawn Of The Dead immediately throws us right into the deep end of the apocalypse, with a local news station struggling to stay on the air and broadcast accurate and useful information to the masses while riot police storm through housing projects in an effort to mop up both criminals and reanimated corpses alike.  The national infrastructure is still somewhat in place and we hear reporters talk about the President sending legislation to Congress, however it's clear that this is no longer just a series of isolated incidents but in fact a full blown national emergency.  Trying to stay ahead of the disaster, news producer (I think?) Francine and her pilot boyfriend Stephen fly off with SWAT officers Roger and Peter and eventually settle down in an abandoned shopping mall.  They clear out whatever zombies are inside and then lock the place down to prevent any outsiders, living or undead, from breaching their little corner of security.  After that the group finds themselves stocked with an embarrassment of riches.  The world may be sliding into chaos outside, but inside they've got piles of food, guns, ammunition, TVs, fur coats and fancy champagne.  Along with having their run of the entire mall, they actually turn an isolated old storage room into a secluded little bungalow, complete with a living room, love nest and fondue set!  It looks like good times and smooth sailing, despite the growing number of corpses walking around outside the gates.  Eventually they even fall victim to the ennui of the wealthy, idly skating around the empty ice rink and trading hundreds of meaningless dollars in a game of cards.  Stephen actually proposes to Francine but she turns him down because "it wouldn't be real," implying that their emotional bond isn't enough reason for them to stay together and that without a ceremony full of adoring onlookers their marriage would somehow be considered a sham.  Yet they're not willing to go out in the world and search for other survivors despite having their own helicopter.  They're won't risk their own ivory tower in order to help those most in need.

But as is customary when the 1% hordes necessary resources, eventually the 99% gets pissed and comes looking for a piece of the good life.  In this case, the common folk are embodied by a biker gang led by Tom Savini, who was also the film's head makeup artist.  (I'll forgive Savini the terrible blue-faced zombies only because the rest of his work is so outstanding.)  Once the bikers come upon the mall and realize that there are people living in there, they storm the gates and ransack the place, letting in a swarm of zombies in their wake.  But it's telling that the looters don't go after food, guns or essential supplies and instead snatch up jewelry, TVs and cold hard cash from the mall's bank branch.  It seems that everyone, from street thug to socialite, is preoccupied with a sense of crass materialism and ensuring their own comfort to the detriment of all.  They're willing to forego stark practicalities or deny the new status quo in order to cling to a reality that no longer exists, to say nothing of eschewing the simple morality of helping other people because there's safety in numbers.

Day Of The Dead escalates the scale of the zombie destruction even further.  The struggle between man and corpse has long since ended, with whole cities overrun by the undead and not a living soul in sight.  We meet a handful of survivors who've locked themselves away in an underground military bunker in Florida, the only remnants of a last ditch effort by the government to determine exactly why the dead are coming back to life and how to stop them.  These people, a hodgepodge of military personnel and research scientists, have all but given up searching for other people in the wreckage of civilization; the isolation, sleep deprivation and dwindling supplies have brought the group to the very brink of sanity.  The soldiers (one of which is played by effects artist Greg Nicotero) have devolved into screaming, violent lunatics who want nothing more than to abandon their post and satisfy their own bloodlust, while the scientists, led by Dr. Frankenstein, have come up frustratingly empty despite countless hours spent dissecting and studying the zombies they've trapped in an old mine shaft.  In fact, it's gotten so bad that Frankenstein has abandoned all attempts to stop the zombie outbreak and has instead turned to finding a way to domesticate the creatures.

Frankenstein asserts that since we can't get rid of the zombies we must learn to live in harmony by training them to perform menial tasks and not to think of living people as food.  (This same concept was amusingly realized at the end of Shaun Of The Dead.)  His star pupil is Bub, a.k.a. the single greatest character in the entire trilogy.  He's seems to exist in a state of childlike wonder, which makes sense considering that Frankenstein acts as a sort of father figure.  Watching Bub use a shaving razor, try to read Salem's Lot, or learn how to make music come out of a cassette deck is downright adorable and you almost forget about the creature's savage nature.  Of course the dark secret to Bub's success is that Frankenstein has been rewarding the zombie's progress by feeding him the remains of dead soldiers, the discovery of which sends Rhodes, Steel and the other soldiers completely over the edge and forces a final bloody showdown featuring unparalleled zombie carnage.  Most of the film is simply people arguing in a bunker (a setting that always feels like a cost-saving measure), so it's not until the film's final 15 minutes or so that we get any really good zombie kills.  But rest assured that your patience will pay off, as film's finale is an absolutely gleeful splatterfest of gore at the hands of a number of amusingly costumed zombies.  If you enjoyed the Hare Krishna zombie in Dawn, wait till you see some of the outfits in the finale of Day.

The progression of the zombie apocalypse and the human response to it over the course of all three films is pretty fascinating: the zombies begin to slowly evolve into actual people while humanity slips backwards and embraces its most base instincts.  Or at least all the white people do.  We've all grown accustomed to the horror trope of the black guy dying first, so you've got to give credit to Romero for giving each film a strong, intelligent black lead who always acts with dignity and never sheds his own morality just to stay alive.  Ben, Peter and John are all unflappable in the face of disaster and they're exactly the kind of guys you want by your side when you're fighting off legions of the undead.  It certainly stands in sharp contrast to The Walking Dead, a show that operates on the unspoken rule that the audience is only allowed to care about one black character at a time.  The fact that Michael and D'Angelo from The Wire are both still alive after four episodes feels like a minor miracle, but since they're both out on the same supply run right now I fully expect one of them to go down before they make it back to the prison.

I do feel like there's an element missing from Romero's original trilogy that The Walking Dead actually handles pretty well, and that's depicting an attempt to actually forge a life and perhaps even a community in the midst of the zombie wasteland.  Dawn spends a lot of time with the zombies as an almost abstract threat that only exists outside the safety of the mall.  Our heroes are insulated and able to live a life of idle contentment within the walls of their hideaway.  And while I don't necessarily think we're supposed to believe that the soldiers and scientists of Day are the last people left on Earth, they might as well be since we never meet anyone else.  Either way, those guys have already gone fully round the bend before the movie even starts.  But between Dawn and Day lies a middle ground, where zombies remain a threat and people struggle to survive but they're able to work together and maintain some semblance of hope for the future.  Zack Snyder's Dawn Of The Dead remake moves a little closer in that direction, but if my vague recollection of Land Of The Dead is correct then I think that's the droid I'm looking for here.  I'll have to give it another watch this week to be sure.

I'm reminded of my reaction to Contagion, in that it's fairly impossible to watch a zombie movie and not start coming up with your own zombie contingency plan.  I actually love the shopping mall idea if only because it would provide you with a wealth of resources, but such a place would also surely attract Savini-esque looters.  The trick is to find a secure, defensible location that lies outside of a major population zone.  Hopefully that would ensure fewer zombies to deal with but also perhaps fewer marauders.  As much as I criticize the callous and insular behavior of Dawn's heroes, I have to admit that in the same situation I would probably act in a similar fashion, wary of broadcasting my position to outsiders.  Sure I have an intellectual problem with that now, but when it's a matter of personal survival with no promise of rescue or safe haven, it's hard to imagine what I wouldn't do to protect myself and those closest to me.  You want to believe you can take in strays and help others, but as I just admitted we all have the capacity for ruthless action when our back is up against the wall.  In the zombie apocalypse, all bets are off.

I will say this.  My disdain for "fast zombies" has now grown exponentially.

Title: Night Of The Living Dead
Director: George A. Romero
Starring:  Duane Jones, Judith O'Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Keith Wayne, Judith Riley
Year Of Release: 1968
Viewing Method: Netflix DVD

Title: Dawn Of The Dead
Director: George A. Romero
Starring: Ken Foree, David Emge, Scott H. Reiniger, Gaylen Ross, David Early, Tom Savini
Year Of Release: 1978
Viewing Method: Theatrical - Coolidge Corner

Title: Day Of The Dead
Director: George A. Romero
Starring: Lori Cardille, Terry Alexander, Jospeh Pilato, Richard Liberty, Jarlath Conroy, Anthony Dileo Jr., Sherman Howard, G. Howard Klar, Greg Nicotero
Year Of Release: 1985
Viewing Method: Netflix DVD

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