Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Is Day of the Dead a More Important Movie Than Dawn of the Dead?

I remember Roger Ebert's review of George Romero's third zombie movie, Day of the Dead, from his 1991 version of Roger Ebert's Movie Home Companion. One and a half stars. It's a typical review of Day of the Dead, a movie that for almost two decades was considered a dismal failure, and the least of what was Romero's trilogy of zombie movies. Considering that Ebert was a champion of Dawn of the Dead, and a prime mover in making other critics, academics, and intelligentsia take that movie seriously as an incisive satire of American consumerist society, it seems unfortunate that Ebert seemed to really miss the point of Day of the Dead, a movie with an equally, if not more important statement to make about American society. The loss of communication between increasingly fragmented groups of people with disparate, and often opposing, morals, ethics, and self-interests. Dawn of the Dead was the much more successful movie, but in my opinion Day of the Dead dealt with what has become a far more serious problem in American society long before it became obvious to others. 

One of Ebert's main criticisms of the movie was that the characters "upstage the ghouls" by "shouting their lines from beginning to end." Yes, this is exactly what happens in Day of the Dead. It's mainly a movie about humans not being able to get along and form a cohesive mini-society with some sort of civility when it is needed the most. The zombies are almost a peripheral danger. It's really the humans who pose the most danger to each other. The movie is about loss of civility, communication, and the disintegration of behavior. And it's hyper-relevant in light of recent developments in an America where religion, politics, and race have turned us into a fractured nation of doomsday preppers banding together with those who look and believe like us, and considering everyone else the enemy. If you're not in our camp, we'll demonize and dehumanize you, and you might as well be a zombie because if we see you when the shit goes down we'll aim for the head. 

No, Day of the Dead is not a superior movie to Dawn of the Dead, but thirty years later it's message is far more relevant and terrifying than the consumer-driven zombies shuffling through the mall because it was such an important place in their lives. We've blown past the point where greed or vanity or self-serving interest are new problems in America. We're in an all-out undeclared war where most of us are prepared to blow off another human being's head if they cut us off in traffic. 

In Day of the Dead Dr. Logan, who is working on a way to make zombies behave by employing  operant conditioning techniques, is challenged by the military leader Rhodes, who considers his methods and goal ridiculous, prompting Dr. Logan to say the line I think is the crux of the movie: "It's the bare beginning of social behavior. Civilized behavior. Civil behavior is what distinguishes us from the lower forms. It's what enables us to communicate. To go about things in an orderly fashion without attacking each other like beasts in the wild. Civility must be rewarded, Captain. If it isn't rewarded, then there's no use for it. There's just no use for it at all."

I think in this moment in American history we're losing our civilized behavior, mostly because we've stopped rewarding decent, altruistic acts, and started rewarding selfish, irresponsible behavior. My case in point is a recent book detailing why psychopaths can be good. This on the heels of a popular book by a female lawyer who unapologetically confesses to being a sociopath, and using her deficiencies as a human being as an advantage, not a detriment. Movies like Wall Street and The Wolf of Wall Street have taught us greed is good, and that it doesn't matter how you succeed, as long as you succeed. Just win, baby, to quote the late owner of the Los Angeles Raiders, Al Davis. Now we have generations of Americans, working side by side, who are beginning to believe the ends justifies any means. 

What will become of this? When good behavior is no longer rewarded. Will there simply be no use for it?


Day of the Dead Dr. Frankenstein
Richard Liberty as Dr. Logan in the 1985 zombie movie Day of the Dead
"It's the bare beginning of social behavior. Civilized behavior. Civil behavior is what distinguishes us from the lower forms. It's what enables us to communicate. To go about things in an orderly fashion without attacking each other like beasts in the wild. Civility must be rewarded, Captain. If it isn't rewarded, then there's no use for it. There's just no use for it at all."
The interceding three decades since Day of the Dead was released have done a great deal to allow critics to re-evaluate this film and decide it's pretty damn good. But it's more than good, it's prescient. In it's microcosm of a society falling apart it presaged the past decade in the American experience almost perfectly. Everyone yelling, unconcerned with anything but their own agenda, and zombies lurking in the periphery, just waiting for anyone to make a mistake and get within their reach. 

We're fucked. And we're fucked good. Unless.... Unless what? Unless we can get them to behave....





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