Morbidly Beautiful

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Romero’s bleak conclusion to his influential Trilogy of the Dead, “Day of the Dead” turns 37, and it’s time to revisit an OG horror classic.

Everybody has that perfect love. Whether it’s a person, a work of art, a belief, or anything else that stokes the warm, radiating flames in your heart.

I believe music, more than anything else, suits this concept. Is there music you would take a bullet for? The Misfits, Emperor, Deceased, Berlioz, and Mussorgsky are a few of mine.

I wouldn’t be able to go on without the things that feed me inside and offer commiseration from this sharp, shattering, splintered earthbound reality.

Every effort is going to be made to assure this article is an entertaining and readable one, rather than a shrieking fanboy seizure. The Internet already has too much of that.

The apex of my endearment is for a movie, though, not music. There are thousands of them that I either like or love. But with my last human breath, I’ll declare George A. Romero’s 1985 festival of misery Day of the Dead as my most beloved movie.

The film I affectionately refer to as “the movie that wants to hurt you.”

This adoration pushes through every possible barrier of doubt and brings my heart to a place of blind, yet comforting, reverence.

Even if the biggest asshole I know loves it (he does), I would still adore it like an adopted puppy. Well, maybe a better comparison would be to a huge, undead, putrefying Rottweiler.

Day of the Dead turned 37 today (July 19th), which means I saw it for the first time when I was 10 or 11. It was released in 1985 (I had to count with my fingers), which many call the greatest year for horror movies ever.

I have no choice but to agree.

It’s common sense, after all. Day of the Dead, Re-Animator, Silver Bullet, The House on the Edge of the Park, Guinea Pig 2: Flower of Flesh and Blood, Guinea Pig: Devil’s Experiment, Superstition, The Mutilator. And how could I forget Hard Rock Zombies?

But in my world, Day of the Dead spews toxic pus all over them. Even Re-Animator.

It’s an ice pop with wretched gray flavoring.

The level of depressive hostility and hopelessness in Day of the Dead is magnificent.

I’ve seen it so many times I can actually give you options if you watch it with me:

I can hum along with the score, recite the words, or a combination of both with a few bonus sound effects thrown in. Like the soul-sucking opening “BWAAHHHMMM”.

Everyone in the movie is lifeless, exhausted, and wrapped up in the drabbest clothing imaginable. As a matter of fact, the zombies sometimes look more colorful than the living, and not always because of blood and bites.

Upon initial viewing, it is easy to laugh at the zombies, because they are so nonsensically mixed.

A clown, a bride, lots of soldiers, and a chef are only the tip of the iceberg. When I first beheld the beast, I scratched my head too. But it makes complete sense.

Keep in mind the zombies have been wandering aimlessly for years, so it stands to reason that they’ll end up in very odd places. They are moldy from absorbing countless rainstorms, then drying in the sour, reeking air.

Day of the Dead also adds the repellant detail that most of the zombies in this movie seem to come from a swampy, muddy area.  

They are nauseatingly filthy.

This is the only zombie movie where I could smell them. Even through the television, I can pick up tactile frissons of brown, fleshy stink. Zombies never looked so diseased and repellent.

Day of the Dead has never been bested when it comes to the gore of the living dead.

Yes, I’ll give Walking Dead its due, but I’m going to take off significant points for the CGI work. Did it make the zombies and splatter look cooler and more detailed? Of course. But it’s still just XBOX graphics and green dots.

Enough of that. I don’t want to pick on it, because it did have its moments over the years.

DAY OF THE DEAD has so many sweet, fun-sized ticks.

Mcdermott drops his empty flask, like not even alcoholism matters when he’s a fleeing zombie meal in a cave. The look of panicked disappointment on Miguel’s face as the Florida zombies approach him. On top of that, the way level-headed Sarah stands there for a few extra seconds, just to watch them.

The way Torrez waters his marijuana plants, then enthusiastically picks a bud. Steel throwing the can. The way the dead freak out when they’re caught in the corral. The way a zombie almost grabs Miguel’s necklaces.

The hard, metallic thud when John drops the gun he stole from Rhodes. In a panic, both Steel and Rhodes clumsily attempt to load their guns. When Mcdermott pours more spirits for an exhausted Sarah. The bone-chilling undead moans when John says “tombstone”.

Then there’s the half-head with eyes that still look around.

Another favorite is the sequence when Bub tries to shave, peels away some skin, then tries to eat it as it hangs from the razor. Bub spits it out, and Dr. Logan whispers to himself, “I thought he’d do that.” The grin on Logan’s face when he drills into a zombie’s head.

(By the way, that effect was done using a straw with tiny holes poked at the end of it to create the illusion of a drill bit boring into a blood-squirting head.)

The way John is delighting in his chow at the 7:00 meeting.

According to Dr. Logan, the undead-to-living ratio stands at 400,000 to one. But don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about the look on Rhode’s face when Logan asks if he went awol, where would he go.

There is also an easter egg of The Gonk song from Dawn of the Dead.

When Logan turns the lights off to punish a misbehaving zombie, a brief snippet of the tune can be heard. And my ceiling fan clicks in the same precise way Sarah’s centrifuge clicks. The sounds are identical.

Now that I think about it, perhaps I’ve watched the movie a little too much.

There are three kills that I want to touch upon, and it may be surprising which ones I leave out. 

The first death is Torrez, with his head being treated like a bowling ball.

The screech of his vocal cords being stretched was done in post-production, and George loved it the first time he heard it. That fleshy, stretching wail has always given me the creeps, and it still does.

The second kill that completely blows my mind to smithereens is the demise of Rickles.

As he runs from the hordes of zombies infesting the limestone cavern, Rickles continues to carry his Joker-esque laughter. He runs out of rifle ammo, then goes for a handgun as he is overrun and tackled by zombies.

His death is one of the most brutal. Imagine those muddy, diseased fingers digging into your eyelids and peeling off your face. Then having an eye fall out.

There is a point when his laughter turns into cries of pain, and that moment also digs deep under my skin (pun intended).

I noticed a wedding ring as his fingers were being bitten off. Who would marry Rickles?

The third, final, and most impressive death is not Captain Rhodes; it’s poor, pitiful Miguel. 

Above everyone else, he had the worst go of it.

I always immerse myself deep into Miguel’s frame of mind during his suicide. The insurmountable weight of his despair is impossible to imagine. Words escape me when I try to describe how righteous and badass his suicide/vengeance is.

The giant elevator platform slowly descends, packed with zombies. Hundreds of zombies are on the platform, and I love it when one of them falls before the platform stops. I cherish the shivers I get as I watch the metal platform drop, and the perfect rectangle of undead begins to spread out like wasps from a disturbed nest.

Miguel, I love you. I will always admire the heartbroken darkness in your heart.

What about Dr. Logan? Rhodes swiss-cheesed him really good, but he didn’t shoot him in the head. George wasn’t one to break his own rules, so is there lost footage of Logan and Bub wandering around the complex eating leftover soldiers?

There is still so much I haven’t covered.

My take on Logan’s theories (preposterous), Joe Pilato’s legendary performance, the misunderstood music, and the formation of KNB Effects, just to name a few.

I promised this wouldn’t turn into a fangasm, but it most certainly has. I sound like that Chris Farley character from SNL. Apologies. My crazed adoration for this movie cannot be tamed.

When I die and get cremated, I want to cook with a copy of Day of the Dead and have mixed ashes.

In an interview included in the bonus features of a funky Anchor Bay re-release, complete with Dr. Logan’s notebook included, George Romero says of his legacy that some people stick with the original, Night of the Living Dead, some get together and party with Dawn of the Dead, and the real trolls like Day of the Dead.

Not Internet trolls or the ones under bridges, but the outcast, vicious, and nasty ones who gleefully absorb the crushing negativity of Day of the Dead.

Thank you, George, so much. You have given me a movie the personal importance of which cannot be overstated.

1 Comment

1 Record

  1. on March 7, 2024 at 4:33 am
    Rick Steven D. wrote:
    Great job thanks One of the most heartfelt appreciations of a movie that I have ever read. Hilarious, too! I love how you emphasize the autumnal bleakness, the existential despair, of Day of the Dead; plus I seem to remember that when it was released, one of those intellectual quarterlies, the kind that only pay attention to films like, say, Shoah, actually reviewed it, and I remember writer compared Romero's mise en scene: the desaturated color, and the starkness of that setting, an underground bunker with bare cinder-block walls, to the setting of a play by Beckett. And the great critic Robin Wood tied in Day of the Dead's pessimism to it being released at the height of the Reagan-eighties. Great job, thanks!

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