Easily the best, funniest, and most exciting of the original three Mad Max films; perhaps the presence of a co-director helped. In the cheerfully bifurcated plot, Max (Mel Gibson, not the happiest camper during filming, and it shows) follows his stolen camel wagon to Bartertown, whose leader Aunty Entity (Tina Turner in a flamboyant performance to match her outfits) hires him as an assassin, or something; it doesn’t matter, because as soon as he refuses to kill his opponent in the gladiatorial Thunderdome, he’s exiled and winds up in some atavistic wasteland ruled by feral children, who think he’s their messiah! There’s much more humor here than in the other movies, and Gibson is amusingly grouchy throughout — he considers the kids a pain in the ass. Everything leads to the prolonged, obligatory chase at the end, a breathtaking pursuit involving all kinds of vehicles. Great goofy fun, with a hilarious turn by diminutive horror veteran Angelo Rossitto as the Master (“You want foot in face?”). Dazzling cinematography by Dean Semler.
Archive for July 1985
When George A. Romero delivered Day of the Dead, the final film in a trilogy (at least until Land of the Dead twenty years later) begun with the classic Night of the Living Dead and continued in the beloved Dawn of the Dead, many fans greeted it with disappointment and even disdain. True, Tom Savini’s gore effects were more elaborate than anything he’d done before, but as a story it just seemed like a collection of scenes about people yelling at each other.
Some fans also mourned the Day of the Dead that never was — the original script that Romero couldn’t film for budgetary reasons. That script is an entertaining read, far different from what was filmed — the idea of training and domesticating zombies is much more fully developed, for example — and extremely action-oriented. The movie Romero made is a lot more claustrophobic and contained, out of necessity, and probably more in keeping with the limited backdrops of NOTLD (an abandoned house) and Dawn (an empty shopping mall).
Romero fell back on the standard conflict between the military and science. As in Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World, the scientists want to study the creatures — flesh-eating zombies — while the military men just want to shoot them in the head and be done with it. Brains vs. brawn. The soldiers, commanded by the snarling Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato), resentfully do the dangerous shitwork of capturing zombies to be used in experiments. The scientists, headed by Sarah (Lori Cardille, playing a composite of two characters from the original script) and the loopy Dr. Logan (the late Richard Liberty), know they need to produce some impressive results soon or Rhodes and his men will take off and leave the test-tube jockeys for zombie snacks. In between are John (Terry Alexander), a helicopter pilot, and Bill (Jarlath Conroy, looking like an emaciated Rowan Atkinson), a communications techie; they don’t believe in the scientists’ research but don’t trust the crude soldiers either.
In the original concept, Rhodes wasn’t just a bellowing control freak — he was a sadist and a madman, acting under orders from a corrupt politician in comfortable hiding. And some of Rhodes’ soldiers were actually zombies, trained to shoot or reload depending on an electronic signal; the zombies wore color-coded vests according to how advanced their “re-education” was. In the movie, Rhodes is pretty much just an asshole, though a dangerous one, willing to shoot anyone who disobeys an order. His men — except the snivelling, neurotic Miguel (Antone Dileo), who’s sleeping with Sarah — are loutish, bearded beer-belly types who love nothing more than spraying Sarah with lewd comments. (Amusingly, one of the more obnoxious soldiers, played by Ralph Marrero, is a dead ringer for Stanley Kubrick.) One wishes that Romero had drawn the military men with a bit more subtlety, so that we could relate to their resentment at having to risk their asses rounding up zombies for some half-ass experiments. Instead they’re more or less all written (and acted) on the cartoonish level of that SWAT guy at the beginning of Dawn who growls “Shoot all their Puerto Rican and nigger asses.”
Still, the friction between the characters, while sometimes tiresome, is realistic. Nobody in the movie is quite likable — at best, some are less dislikable than others, usually those on the scientists’ side, though Dr. Logan is eventually revealed to be cracking under the strain as much as Rhodes is. The most annoying character is also the least dangerous (for most of the movie, anyway) — Miguel, a shaky composite of a guerrilla forager in the original script (who died early on) and a sympathetic soldier named Toby Tyler. Supposedly Sarah’s Hispanic lover (he’s referred to as “the spic” more than once), Miguel, as played by Antone Dileo, reads as neither Latino nor heterosexual, and his scenes with Sarah feel pointless. It’s brave of Romero to give us such an unstable and useless character, but we think less of Sarah for being attached to him, and besides, we’ve been here before in the rather more complexly written dynamic between Gaylen Ross and David Emge in Dawn. We do see a different side of Sarah when she’s able to hang out with John and Bill (friends or more than that? the movie never says) in their Caribbean-decorated hideaway; she relaxes and lets her guard down. The movie is maybe too taut for its own good; in Dawn, in the scenes that didn’t advance the plot — when the four survivors went shopping, goofed around in the mall, had romantic dinners — we were able to glimpse something of what they were before the zombie apocalypse, and that’s what we miss here.
As a zombie film, it needs to be said, Day does deliver. Howard Sherman’s performance as Bub, the domesticated “teacher’s pet” zombie nurtured by Dr. Logan, adds pathos and humanity to the proceedings. We certainly get a sense of what he used to be like when he was human — indeed, he’s often more human than the humans. And special-effects master Tom Savini goes all out with the money scenes of zombies on the rampage, including the celebrated fate of Captain Rhodes (who gets the best final words in horror-film history). Day is entertaining, if frustrating. The frustration comes out in the film; it feels frustrated, embittered, made by a man who’s fed up with the business side of the movie industry. And that bitterness shows up in every Romero film since, from Monkey Shines to The Dark Half to Bruiser.
I think part of the reason many Romero fans reacted against Day so strongly is that it showed the writing on the wall. Romero’s films up to that point — even the bleak Martin — vibrated with a kind of personal glee, and long stretches of Dawn of the Dead are actually comedic. Day of the Dead shows Romero at a low personal ebb — forced to cut down his vision to appease the guys with the money (shit, couldn’t Stephen King have kicked in a couple of mil to help out his friend?). With that in mind, you understand why the soldiers in the film are depicted as hostile thugs; if you read the scientists as film artists and the soldiers as the money guys — who breathe down your neck demanding “results” — the movie becomes a rather personal expression of Romero’s anger and depression. And it sort of deforms the arc of the trilogy; rather than casting its net wider, as originally planned, it shrinks and freeze-dries into an underappreciated director’s growl of impotent contempt. For Romero fans, it’s a sad sight.