Romero's Dead Cycle, Part Three: Soldiers, Scientists and Zombies... Oh My!
By Desmond Reddick
12 March 2007 — It was a time when weapons were being exchanged for hostages. Money was given to corrupt revolutionaries to overthrow communist governments. Great strides were taken in technology, especially when it comes to robotics and space exploration. But the shadow of the Cold War loomed over the world, adding a sinister atmosphere to it all. The Cold War of the 1950s and 60s pitted "us" versus "them," however, by the 1980s a general distrust for all involved had formed. And, if the rest of the Dead Cycle taught us anything, it's that humans can't be trusted.
Day of the Dead is a difficult film to take on its own merit. The preceding films were so powerful and potent that Day pales in comparison. However, it is the standout of the series in that nobody is resurrected by the infectious bite. Instead, death is long and gruesome. So very gruesome. Beside all this, most people view Day as the grimmest of the series. I look at it as having the happiest ending of them all, but we'll get to that later.
The characters can be broken down into four factions: soldiers, scientists, civilians and zombies. There is an interesting dynamic between all groups; even some of the zombies act as something other than a flesh-eating force to be reckoned with. In this way the film is much less a commentary on certain events, but rather a look at the way people interact with one another. Here's a rundown of the different groups and their meanings, both literal and metaphorical:
The soldiers fit a very rigid stereotype. They, having been ordered to secure the underground facility they all inhabit, have gotten fed up with their position. When their commanding officer dies the scientists lose their only ally. Hotheaded tyrant Captain Rhodes takes charge, and he doesn't take any shit from anybody. He's very oppressive and, along with his men, has abandoned the mission altogether. Violence is the only answer for them: Rhodes wants a scientist to sit down so he threatens to blow her head off if she doesn't. Their job has been to round up the zombies for the scientists to study, and they begin to take some sick pleasure in it all.
The scientists themselves are in two camps: the researchers and the experimenters. Sarah and Dr. Fisher are the scientists who want to figure out how to reverse the process, but they are overshadowed by the overzealousness of Dr. Logan who is referred to as Dr. Frankenstein. You see, Logan has his own lab where he experiments on the undead corpses. He mercilessly dissects them as they wriggle beneath his tools. Worse than that, not only does Dr. Logan torture them in his experiments, he notes, "They are us." Science has clearly crossed the line from honorable to malevolent. After all of the sick things Logan is doing, he has a streak of rationality. Logan gives the viewer a better idea of the world above when he tells the assembled group that humanity is outnumbered 400,000 to one. Clearly, he is right when he offers a different method of getting out of their current predicament: train the undead to obey humanity.
There are two gentlemen underground who are simply there to do a job: a helicopter pilot and a radio operator. They have essentially been rendered useless and live a life of self-delusion. Although they wallow in an underground bunker, they have set up an RV with a makeshift backyard where they lounge around and drink all day. Stuck between the tyrannical military and the intellectually distracted scientists, they want nothing but the good life and aren't afraid to express it. In a world of complex military operations, back-alley deals and an increase in scientific and technological advancement, modern man wants the simple life.
The zombies are the most interesting aspect of this film. In the other films, they have been seen as an outside threat, used as nothing more than a plot device to pit the living characters against each other in an effort to comment on society. In Day of the Dead they are used in much the same way, yet they're on the other side of the moral divide. Throughout the film we're subjected to imagery of zombies being trapped, tortured and dissected like animals. Through this constant abuse they become sympathetic creatures. In one scene a zombie is admonished and put in a pitch black room. Kind of funny, right? The look on the zombie's face says otherwise. Dejection and sadness is the cloud over the faces of many of the zombies in the film. And none more so than perhaps the most famous zombie in all of cinema: Bub, Dr. Frankenstein's pet / trainee. Bub remembers his life and wants acceptance from the good doctor. I am not a fan of the sympathetic zombie because it sheds new light on the earlier films in the series, but this is the reason that it works. The exploding heads from Dawn of the Dead color the heroes of that film in an entirely new light.
Whether or not you enjoy the sympathetic zombie, it applies a new aesthetic to zombie films. Day of the Dead was the first Romero film to make you care about the zombie. It was the nail in the coffin for the idea that "we are as bad as they are." We aren't as bad as they are: we are worse.