Thursday, October 16, 2008
Day of the Dead opened to a limited release and lukewarm reviews in the Summer of 1985 but has since gained recognition as one of the better Romero films. Romero himself has stated that it was his favorite of the original trilogy. While the version we are all familiar with is not the epic tale he conceived, it’s budget was cut in half, it still leaves a mark. For fans having witnessed the likes of Dawn of the Dead just a few years before, Day seemed much darker in tone.
But of course it was darker. These were darker times after all. The living dead had all but completely populated the planet reducing the remaining survivors to living underground, at least the ones we know. This film is also a direct reflection of the political upheavals taking place in the mid-eighties in the midst of nuclear threats and the fear of the end as we teetered on the edge of self destruction.
Children of the Cold War were introduced to many phrases over the years that would become staples of our vocabulary as well as our nightmares. Terms such as Nuclear Winter, duck and cover (for those old enough to remember those drills) , fallout shelter, and radiation sickness were woven into the fabric of our everyday lives.
I was only a child of eleven when I first saw Day of the Dead in the theater. It would seem that one so young could not possibly grasp the implications set forth by a film such as this. To a child, the zombies should have been the scariest part but they were not. By the time 1985 rolled around, I was already terrified that The Bomb would land in my backyard at any moment. Television movies like The Day After (1983), books like After the Bomb (though later, 1987) in which a teen attempts to seek medical help for his mother after an attack, and the news all contributed to the mounting fear that the Soviet Union would launch a nuclear attack. And of course we would launch one in return. The consensus was that if either of the leaders “made the call” or “pressed the button”, it would be the end of life as we knew it. We would either die a fiery death at the initial drop or be forced to seek shelter and pray that we were able to avoid the monstrosities of fallout and Nuclear Winter. But hope in that case did not abound. At least in my eyes, the world I knew could be gone in a flash. Television and film had already warned me of what I could expect if that day ever came.
It was not unusual for me to huddle under my bedclothes with only my eyes uncovered to stare into the night sky from the relative safety of my bedroom. I was watching for the bomb. I was waiting to see it break the atmosphere as it hurdled to Earth with complete destruction being its only goal. I would cry myself to sleep in terror of the fate that everyone around me said was coming. I would pray that if The Bomb did come, it would land directly on my head. My worst fear was that I would be a survivor left to deal with the horrors of the aftermath as Society attempted to piece itself back together or at the very least keep itself from falling apart. The adults around me never knew how I felt. I never let them in on the fact that their discussions were so traumatic to my increasingly imaginative mind. They would only dismiss my concerns and tell me not to worry as adults have the habit of doing.
The release of Day of the Dead personified my anxiety. The advancing hordes of the walking dead were representative of the looming dangers that surrounded us. The newspaper headline “The Dead Walk” may as well have read “The Bomb’s Dropped.”
The release of Day of the Dead personified my anxiety. The advancing hordes of the walking dead were representative of the looming dangers that surrounded us. The newspaper headline “The Dead Walk” may as well have read “The Bomb’s Dropped.” Once again I was reduced to listening in the dark for sounds of doom. I listened because I was afraid to watch. I did not want to witness the ghouls on the hunt. This time the sounds were moans, helicopter blades and gunfire in the distance. I would sleep with the radio on in case of a bulletin. The cold, institutional bunker was precisely how I pictured living after such an event, that is assuming I were among the few that survived. The scientists, military and smattering of civilians wrapped in conflict were what I imagined we would be. And to my mind, the worst of it all would not be the bomb itself but dealing with each other when the dust cleared. For even at such a tender age, I already had my doubts about humans as a species. I had seen too many examples of how we treat one another and how we usually err in favor of ourselves over those who might need our help. Now Day of the Dead offered a visual example of us tearing each other apart in vivid color.
Now that the Cold War is over and those fears seem so distant, it’s difficult to try and regain those feelings. It’s not so easy to take myself back to those terrifying moments spent staring out my window in search of my coming death. It almost seems ludicrous now that so many years of my childhood were spent crouching in the dark, afraid of something I could not control. Even with the activity of recent years I have never felt so alone and conquered by fear as I did all those years ago.
I said it was difficult to bring back those feelings, but not impossible. They still ring true whenever I view Day of the Dead. With every frame I am reminded of exactly why the zombie apocalypse is perhaps the most frightening scenario imaginable. In such a case, we are the monsters from every angle. The zombie “we” feeds off the living and the remaining “we” feeds off of our comrades. Just as during those old threats of nuclear war, whether you are taken down with the initial attack or survive, you will be forced into constant battle with those you once called neighbors.
Adulthood gives us the luxury of seeing threats for what they are. As we grow older we come to understand the meaning of words such as “sensationalism,” “irrational” and “unlikely.” If I had possessed an adult brain at the time, perhaps I could have worked out for myself that the dropping of such a destructive tool would likely not be taken as lightly as I was led to believe. Though the threat was real, as palpable as any other, surely they all knew that once one launched an attack, the domino effect would come into play. A ploy such as that would only be suicide. And now as I watch the world today I have a completely different view of these menaces. I decided long ago that I would never again live in fear of something that I cannot control.
What remains is the hope that we have learned something, anything from all those decades of apprehension. For if we have not then woe to us as a species. And in the meantime Romero is the author of my personal survival guide. From him I have learned a valuable lesson. The only thing that will save us in our darkest hour is the willingness to cooperate when the threads holding us together are bare. Compassion and charity, humanity and heart: these will be our saving graces.
To quote Shaun (of the Dead) who quoted Bertrand Russell, “the only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation.”