Choke On Em! (Day of the Dead, 1985)

Day_of_the_Dead_PosterDay of the Dead begins with the films heroes landing a helicopter at the edge of a city. They are calling out as the camera explores a desolate empty world seemingly only occupied by animals.  But then we see a shadow and the camera pans up to the mutilated face of a zombie.

Day of the Dead shows us a world over run by zombies.  There are few members of the living.  In fact, our heroes are part of a secret base of scientists and soldiers who are starting to wonder if they are all alone on the world.  Set on a small island in an underground base, tensions between the civilian staff and military men are running high.

Captain Rhodes and his men are starting to become more aggressive, believing the scientists work unimportant.  The military men just want to find another outpost and leave.  But the lead scientist Logan is obsessed with the idea that he can “domesticate” zombies.  His best example is the zombie Bub (which he explains is a nickname of his father).  Bub seems to remember things like tools, books, phones.  He mainly is mimicking what other people do (he simply thumbs through a Stephen King book, runs a disposable razor down his cheek, etc).  But Logan believes it is more, and the end of the film does suggest that Bub is not as mindless as he seems.

Eventually, it all explodes, the scientists plan an escape, while Rhodes and his men plan to leave the island and the scientists behind.  You might be surprised to find that not everything goes as planned.

A new theme enters Romero’s films with Day of the dead…one of…”Who is worse?”  Not unlike Ripley telling Burke you don’t see the aliens “f***ing each other over for a percentage”, Rhodes and his men may be more terrifying as they bully and abuse the scientists.  It has been said that as the movies have gone on, George Romero started to side with the zombies.  Day of the Dead is the seeds of that.

It is not just the callous obsession of Logan or the cruelty of Captain Rhodes.  It is, ultimately, Bub.  Bub, who barely says a word is remarkably sympathetic.  Sherman Howard packs a lot of emotion into his performance, and it is no surprise that Bub is a popular character.

Truthfully, Day of the Dead is my favorite Romero zombie movie.  I like and admire the previous two films, but Day is my unabashed favorite.  Being set beyond the zombie outbreak allows an exploration of that world based in something other than confusion and desperation.  It asks the most intriguing questions about human nature and our desire to control situations that may be far from our grasp.

When There Is No More Room In Hell (Dawn of the Dead, 1978)

Dawn_of_the_Dead_PosterIt took about ten years for Romero to find something new to explore with zombies.  It was the Dawn of the Shopping Mall, with large insular buildings housing a variety of stores.  At the time, this encapsulated the concerns of modern life and consumerism.  George Romero looked at the shopping mall and thought “What a terrifying place!”

The film opens amidst a frenzied newsroom trying to make sense of what is happening.  It appears this may be the same night as the original film, though the film is never that explicit.  It does not reference Night of the Living Dead.  None of the films do, actually.  Each film seems to take place in an ever present “now”, regardless of if it makes sense in the greater context of all the films.

Two newsroom employees escape in a helicopter, along with two S.W.A.T. team members.  They end up landing on a mall roof.  What follows is an adventure of survival as they build a small fortress and use the mall stores to wait out the zombie situation.    At first, this works out quite well, and they get creative, building fake walls to hide stairwells from Zombies, blocked glass doors with trucks, using the mall keys to move from store to store and get supplies.

But you know their paradise cannot last as outside forces close in.  Romero keeps his central cast to a tight four.  This is a good choice, as we are allowed to connect with our leads and root for their success in a way that can be hard if there are to many people to keep track of.

The gore effects are improved over the previous effort, though as Tom Savini noted making many zombies grayish colored actually results in zombies looking blue.  And the blood splatter from some zombies seems far to large for shambling dead creatures.

This is the film that really set up the “Zombie represents mindless consumption” metaphor.  Which is kind of funny, since there have been an endless supply of bad zombie films over the years for the masses to consume.  But Dawn of the Dead is a great film and important to the horror (and especially zombie films) genre.

I Try To Not Think About Death Much (Return of the Living Dead, 1985)

rotld_posterIn 1986, Alien Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon made a deal to direct (he had directed a short film seventeen years earlier) a film.  He was to make an unofficial sequel of sorts to Night of the Living Dead.

An effects heavy zombie film, the big twist of the Return of the Living Dead is it is a comedy.  A gory one, but a comedy none the less.  We are quickly introduced to Frank and Freddy, employees of a medical supply company.  After Burt (the boss) leaves for the weekend, Frank starts to show Freddy around, skeletons, half dogs and cadavers and the like.  He also tells Freddy that they have some canisters with real zombies (and proceeds to proclaim the Night of the Living Dead was a real thing, just altered for the film).  They look at the canisters and accidentally release an ominous gas.  When they wake up, they find all the dead things seeming to be alive.  This leads to some hilarity as they call Burt in and the three try and fix the problem.

Meanwhile, Freddy’s girlfriend Tina is hanging out with her friends (a bunch of punks) in a graveyard waiting for Freddy to get done with work.  This includes a bizarre moment Trash (Scream Queen Linnea Quigley), obsessed with death starts expressing a fantasy of being eaten alive (foreshadowing, folks)…she then strips and dances upon a tombstone.  Burt, Frank and Freddy go across the street with a cut up cadaver and check in with mortician Ernie.  They ask to use the crematorium to dispose of rabid weasels.  But as the body burns, it creates more ominous smoke which causes a storm and in turn the rain soaks the ground, re-animating the graveyard.

What follows is the characters trying to survive the hoards of zombies.  Everyone gets trapped in the mortuary or the medical supply warehouse.  The film finds a lot of humor in it’s gruesome subject.  Thom Mathews (Freddy) and James Karen (Frank) have a great rapport and are very entertaining as the two discover they are slowly turning into zombies.  Really, the entire cast is entertaining.  Along with Mathews and Karen, Clu Gulager (Burt) and Don Calfa (Ernie…get it?) are very funny.  It helps that everyone seems to be in on the joke, leading to fun performances.

The effects are terrific, still holding up for the most part.  There is one especially well done zombie effect with a “half” zombie.  Another memorable character is the Tar Man…a slimy decomposing zombie.  The actor in the outfit moves with a creepy fluidity.  The film actually pays little attention to traditional film zombie lore.  They cannot be killed by damaging the brain, even cutting them up, the zombie parts all act independently.  The zombies can also talk.  This is one of the first incidents of zombies being focused on eating brains (In Romero’s films, they just want to eat flesh).  And they constantly announce “Brains!”  But they can form sentences.  One zombie even explains why they  desire to eat brains.

Oh, there are some question to ask…for example, why, after being eaten alive, is Zombie Linnea Quigley have not a single bite…instead she has perfect porcelain skin.  How can the zombies with no lips (some zombies do, some don’t) say stuff like “Brains” and “More Brains”?

Shout!Factory released a Blu-Ray special edition through their Scream!Factory imprint.  It is loaded with special features.  There are four audio commentaries (two are brand new), zombie subtitles (which is an amusing feature for a short time, featuring subtitles like “Arggh” whenever zombies speak), an extensive documentary “More Brains: Return to the Living Dead”, a final interview with the late O’Bannon and many more features.

The picture (from a 2K scan) is clean and looks good.  The two disc set is worthy of any fan’s collection.

A Father’s Love (Maggie, 2015)

maggie1First time film Director Henry Hobson offers up a film very different than one might expect from a guy who came out of the video game industry.  Maggie is not a flashy film.  It is a quiet tale of a family dealing with the fact that their daughter is becoming a zombie.

Set in a world where becoming a zombie is just an expected possibility in life, Maggie is focused on a young woman (Abigail Breslin) who is suffering from the early stages of, uh, “zombie-ism”.    Her father Wade (Arnold Schwarzeneggar) and mother Caroline (Joely Richardson) are struggling to come to terms with what this means.  Do they send their daughter off to Quarantine?  Do they break the law and keep her until she is to far gone?

Wade struggles especially hard with the idea of what the future holds.  He is continuously trying to keep Maggie connected to the living world, whenever she starts to be consumed by aggression and hunger.

You probably see Schwarzeneggar’s name and assume there must be at least one ridiculous fight scene…but Arnold really does well in this role of heartbroken father at a loss for how to help his daughter.  He barely raises his voice.  He is not an action hero barreling through this film.  He is not a super hero.  He is a good hearted and gentle guy.  The connection between father and daughter is evident throughout the film…both of them knowing the path they are going down.

Maggie-590-02As I said, this is a quiet film, and moves at a fairly mellow pace.  This is not a zombie apocalypse about the world falling apart.  It would not be right to call it a horror movie.  This is a father and daughter drama set within a zombie movie.  Change Maggie’s situation to cancer and you have a heartbreaking family drama.

There are moments where the film seems to wander, but the overall film was effective as a slow burn drama.  It will, not be for everyone, but if you have enjoyed a film like, say, Moon?  This may be right up your alley.

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