It’s been my argument for a number of years now that the zombie has supplanted the vampire as the major agent of horror in society. Whereas from the middle ages onward the vampire, in folklore, represented contagion and a dark perversion of the natural order of life and death, it’s essentially been defanged by about 150 years of increasingly romantic pop culture portrayals of what, originally, was basically a corpse that drained the life of the living – the embodiment of a plague.
The zombie, with its origins in the Caribbean and elsewhere, wasn’t a real figure in entertainment until George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (though certainly The White Zombie and I Walked With a Zombie brought the concept into modern American culture).
Romero gave us the rules by which zombies in popular culture are understood: Slow, shambling corpses, usually created by some form of scientific agent, which feed on brains (or the like) and whose bite spreads the contagion. Zombies are, in our minds, the new representatives of plague – silent, grinding, and spreading unstoppably.
How we deal with this zombie menace in film typifies the times in which we tell the zombie stories. To me, there’s a divide, which happened in the early 2000s, between zombie films. Prior to the early 2000s, you see the government, and even more often, the military, portrayed as sometimes the causes of the zombie outbreaks; however, they’re still able to handle the menace, generally, or at least display competency. You see this in Dawn of the Dead, Shawn of the Dead, and Return of the Living Dead, for instance.
After the early 2000s – specifically after 9/11 and the events of Hurricane Katrina – there seems to be a change. Instead of the zombie menace being something that, perhaps, the government created and, as a result, can mount a response to, it’s treated as more of a natural disaster that overwhelms the institutions of government and society, which were poorly prepared to handle them. I’m thinking specifically of The Walking Dead and World War Z, for instance.
And to me, caught right in the middle of these two tropes is the third film in Romero’s original Dead Trilogy: Day of the Dead, probably my favorite zombie film of all time.
In Day of the Dead, the zombie menace that is chronicled in Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead is continuing. We don’t know how long it’s been going, but cities are devastated and communication is sparse, if there is any.
The film follows a group of scientists and soldiers holed up in an underground government facility in Florida which was slated to be used in case of a nuclear holocaust. They make sorties out into the wider world via helicopter to check for any other survivors, but all they find are the shambling dead. Resources are scarce and zombies continually try to break in through the depths of the tunnels. Members of the group are continually being picked off by the zombies or die from other causes.
It’s clear that the fragile detente that once existed between the soldiers and scientists is near the breaking point. The soldiers are aggressive and paranoid, while the scientists are self-righteous and sanctimonious. Alcohol and drug use abounds. Tempers continually flare and eventually turn murderous.
At last, it’s discovered that the chief scientist is using the bodies of dead comrades for experiments – he’s trying to train the zombies, to test how they could be used. A particularly promising subject is dubbed “Bub.” This sets off a terrifying conclusion in which a suicidal member of the soldiers literally opens the flood gates to the zombies and only three people make it out in the helicopter.
Dawn of the Dead is less a bloody horror film, and more a psychological horror film. While Tom Savini’s visionary makeup and gore effects are seen here at the very height of his powers, the real focus here is on the mental strain that each and every character is under. The world has ended, and they may very well be among the last living souls. Resources are dwindling. The zombies can’t be kept out forever. No one is going to save them – newspaper headlines seen at the beginning of the film note that the president is MIA – and there is the very real, indeed almost certain, possibility that they will die.
Few, if any, mainstream horror films before Day of the Dead took into account the heavy emotional toll that such a catastrophe would have. But many films since have done so.
Day of the Dead’s setting – a former mine near Pittsburgh which is currently being used for storage – is perfect. Despite large spaces in some shots, it still feels incredibly claustrophobic. There’s nowhere for the characters to run. Fluorescent lights flicker. Hallway walls feel sterile and cold. Nothing is brightly lit. It’s a dim, gray tomb for the characters to live out their lives, waiting for the death that will eventually come for each of them.
They’re already underground, after all. They’re already in the grave.
Peter Kuebeck is an award-winning journalist, multi-award-winning miniature builder, gamer and horror fan.