After the passing of horror auteur George A. Romero, the Norwich Radical Film Festival announced it would screen Night of the Living Dead in order to honour his legacy, fifty years after the film’s original release revolutionized the horror genre. Now, Director of Programming, Alexandra Nakelski explores the impact of Day of the Dead – an existential polemic of the undead, which she contends would be as unpopular today amid the wreckage of the Trump administration, as it was in the era of Reaganomics.
It could have been 1987, but it was September for sure… Jodi Aragon’s slumber party and we rented a VCR and several videos from Blockbuster. Slumber parties at Jodi’s were the best….good eats, and a great neighborhood for toilet-papering. This occasion we wanted to get a scary movie but nothing could have prepared the pre-teens for the phenomenon of Day of the Dead. I watched, mesmerized, as slowly, but surely, one girl after another would leave to the room to “get a snack” or “make a call” and never return. In the scene early on where Dr. Logan’s specimen breaks his chains and his innards slop to the floor, whatever brave comrades I still had with me, were gone before the intestines all landed. I was last man standing.
What did that mean for me, as a 1980s, pre-teen, Duran Duran loving mall rat? Was I now unpopular because I absolutely loved this gruesome display and vowed right then and there for a career in film? This film was practically straight to video and left for the vaults of us horror nerd’s memories well into the 90s…to even know much less love that film, meant you were hard core. Did this help shape my current identity? WHY other than the fact of the amazing special FX makeup…did I love this movie so much?
As a film scholar and industry insider I can now retrospectively analyze the leitmotifs and structure of Day in a way that tributes George Romero’s genius and vision. I am writing this blog in memorandum of a man who contributed to the condition of capitalism, late postmodernism and humanity in ways that the most sophisticated academics and thinkers of modern day have, if not better…he communicated it to the masses and his message is heard by more people than hiding in a stuffy text for only other elite academics to decipher.
I often ask myself: “Why was this film a ‘failure'”?? I remember the reception of the film ranged from disappointment that it was so different from Dawn of the Dead to it being just a bad film. But any zombie fan would be able to tell you that this is indeed a quality film. So I have come up with a few thoughts on this subject.
Scholars will argue that in an age of Rambo, Schwarzenegger, and Susan Faludi’s Backlash…. the anti-militarism prominent in Day of the Dead did not resonate…. People did not want to recognize the bleak truths Romero portrays in this film when it was supposed to be “Morning Again in America”
The cruelty of the military in Day is blatant; perhaps if this film came out ten years sooner or later reception would have been very different. In the 80s, America was trying to “regain” the failure in Vietnam as can be seen in the “Remasculation” films Susan Jeffords describes in her work, Hard Bodies and The remasculinization of America. Day was a testament to the complete failure of trust in the military to be of any use in a legitimate crisis. America wanted Rambo, not Rhodes. And a zombie actually showing more humanity than the military? Unthinkable! The military was less human than the walking dead… Somehow or rather, I believe this film would be quite unpopular with the Trump regime as well.
Try describing the failure of capitalism in the age of Wall Street. The free market would never fail…and never still will according to our core beliefs and denial to do any analytic criticism of the Federal Reserve and the actual nature of the market. Worthless dollars flying across the screen never to be spent again was an image incongruent with the bright lights bright cities of Reagan’s America. – RVs vehicles, a symbol of recreation and luxury stockpiled underground never to travel the magnificent highway system of the continental US again… a waste…superfluous. A message not welcome in the age of excess. Truly it is easier to imagine the end of the world rather than the end of capitalism.
In the era of Apple and other high tech companies, (the Silicon Valley darlings), the future was assured to be one of harmonious integration with technology. Failure of technology was unthinkable. Technology was insignificant and inept at saving the last vestiges of humanity from annihilation. Most notably when the elevator, their only escape route can’t be repaired; the radio can no longer contact Washington; and the scientists not having the tools they need to reverse/understand the contagion.
The scientists believe they can reverse the caveman behavior of the military men if they “pound logic into their heads” which in today’s climate, where logic is irrelevant and alternative facts reign is laughable. Logic is no longer a mutually agreed upon point of reference. Our civilization has been in decline for some time now, we are just suffering from cultural and historical amnesia to recognize it and still shocked to see the effects of this decline manifest in daily headlines. As seen crystal clear in the widespread denial of climate change…it is too unthinkable to deal with so if we believe it doesn’t exist at all, then it is not real.
The military men gone cavemen address the only female member of the civilian team, “Listen here, woman!” they never acknowledge her by name and imply that the only purpose she may serve would be the sexual satisfaction of the men who need to be men. A strong woman hero as portrayed by Lori Cardille in the age of Susan Faludi’s Backlash argument is also a threat to the “Hard Bodies” we were trying to regain post Vietnam era. Her “emasculation” of Miguel was an atrocity in the eyes of the other army men.
Civilization is extinct. These handful of survivors feel it is their duty to still operate as if it was not. As the Morlocks in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, the humans in Day have retreated underground. John and McDermott refuse to live in the bunker and make an island oasis for themselves. It is here at the last semblance of the life they knew that John tells Sarah that what she and the scientists are doing is a waste of time…all these charts and graphs and records of our past life….what will future archeologists think when they come by to dig them up? Why are they wasting what precious time they have left making more charts and graphs for no one to read? Civility plays an important role in Dr. Logan’s theory of how to “domesticate” the zombies. What IS civilization? According to Logan: Being “tricked” into being good little boys and girls with some hope of reward for good behavior. And that pretty much all of us have been conditioned to operate only for the approval of those who define what society is. We were sold a Bill of Goods, and why would the political atmosphere of the 80s look kindly upon that notion?
Spirit of the Day
Success of a film is mostly due to its congruence of the zeitgeist…box office numbers and reviews are nothing compared to the actual timing of the release. Had Day been released in the 90s or a more cynical era, it would have been met with the accolades it rightfully deserves. Or perhaps the existential criticism of Bub, the “self aware” zombie would still be looked at with confusion? Mankind cannot even get along with itself knowing destruction is imminent to overcome…the Nietzsche-ian idea of the “Overman”.. Is Bub is the next step in evolution? He has cheated death and is self -aware…isn’t this what for millennia mankind has tried to accomplish? Gaining immortality? Bub chose to shoot Rhodes..NOT eat him… The calendar at beginning and end of the film is a powerful image encouraging us to ask ourselves if time still has significance? Is this what defines our humanity? Something to measure our existence? Was this our Achilles heel? Time is nothing to the walking dead…just listen to the chimes at the end of Dawn.
And now Romero has passed…this was my tribute to a man who boldly criticized, with rancor, our most sacred institutions, just a year after being told that: “where we’re going we don’t need roads…” According to Romero’s vision of the future that would be nothing to worry about since there will be no roads anyway. His post apocalyptic nightmare should not be defined as solely entertainment. Something about it struck a chord in me at that slumber party, it wasn’t merely a slumber party horror film. It was more. It still is relevant and a cautionary tale. I am honored I was able to meet Romero and discuss racism and other themes in his films. I am also pleased that we will be presenting Night of the Living Dead at our festival this year with live commentary by Jack Brindelli after the screening. Day of the Dead is much more than a walking dead film; it is a parable. The evil is within, not without.