My Top 8 Horror Films: Day of the Dead (1985)

The other two films in this trilogy are lauded for their innovation, but Day of the Dead gets shit on all the time. Roger Ebert wrote in his 1.5-star review: “In the earlier films, we really identified with the small cadre of surviving humans. They were seen as positive characters, and we cared about them. This time, the humans are mostly unpleasant, violent, insane or so noble that we can predict with utter certainty that they will survive.” I get it. The characters are, indeed, over the top, unlikeable, and can be one-dimensional in their reactions; the zombies are especially ugly, as they’ve rotted thus far in the timeline, and every image of a bite or wound or gore is gratuitous to sickening detail (one scene features a zombie’s organs spilling out of their torso onto the floor with a sound not unlike mixing cottage cheese with mayo). It’s an entirely hostile movie for the senses. But why do I love it so much?

The thing about a lot of recent zombie movies is that they’re just vehicles for white male fantasies of self-determinism, rugged ingenuity, and grit that justify patriarchal, uber-masculine, and macho bullshit: The Walking Dead (2010), Zombieland (2009), World War Z (2013), etc. {1} The Walking Dead fucks around with this without ever actually addressing it: Rick Grimes, a former cop, proclaims at one point to his group, “This is no longer a democracy” to save them; Merle Dixon, an awfully racist motherfucker, becomes lovable and sympathetic while most of the Black cast die off to make sure there aren’t too many Black characters. The Walking Dead then quickly turns into a show about a white dude fighting other white dudes over whose reality is more correct. Movies and shows like that assume that that’s what we would want, to quickly return to patriarchal, white normativity where white men stay in command. It begs the question: who the fuck would want to rebuild, restore, and maintain the shit we’re living in if there was a chance to undo it all? Who? Day of the Dead shows the logical conclusion of trying to return to something that didn’t work in the first place.

The final part in George A. Romero’s trilogy is set in an underground bunker where a group of scientists, technicians, and soldiers have an uneasy arrangement: the scientists search for a cure or way out of the zombie apocalypse, and the soldiers provide protection and resources. They fucking hate each other as the soldiers, after the death of their moderate commander, grow more impatient and fascist in their solutions because the scientists are no closer to finding any answers. Did I mention that the zombies outnumber humans 40,000 to 1? As you can imagine, no interaction between is without some sort of threat of death or atrophy.

The main character is Dr. Sarah Bowman who is not just the only woman, but she serves as the mediator between the chauvinistic troops and the exasperated, and insane, scientists. She knows the research is going nowhere fast, and it’s only a matter of time before the guns find out. Her boyfriend, a Latino soldier, grows more emotionally detached, depressed, and dangerous to those around him. The technicians are a helicopter pilot and radio operator, a Black man and Irish man respectively, who can barely be bothered with all the shit the two other cliques give each other; they’re just modes of transport and communication. As such, they wipe their hands clean of any confrontations and mediation efforts. The scientists aren’t any better as they’re led by a delusional white man who believes his impossible and worthless answer is the only answer; he’s in it to feed his ego as much as the soldiers are. The plot is on borrowed time, and there’s really no conclusion without intense violence. If the white, male patriarchy cannot be appeased, then it’ll rather destroy itself than survive. Sound familiar?

The ending is what you expect it to be: an orgy of gruesome violence. It’s disturbing if you really want humans to thrive; it’s gratifying if you really want the white patriarchy to get what it deserves. Sometimes, they’re so intertwined in a society that you can’t have both.

  1. Some exceptions: I Am Legend (2007) has Will Smith in the leading role. Planet Terror (2007) places a Latino with impeccable aim in the zombie-slaying lead who also impregnates Rose McGowan. “I never miss,” he says at one point as he rubs her belly. Take that as you will. Either way, it’s still guys being dudes.

Reyes Ramirez