The George A. Romero Zombie Cycle Part 3: Day of the Dead

Day of the Dead (1985) is the third episode in George A. Romero’s continuing tale of civilization’s collapse in the event of a global zombie epidemic. This and the big-budget Land of the Dead (2005) are tied for the worst entries in the series. What makes the first two (Night and Dawn) of merit is their surprisingly acute social satire, but here Romero loses his critical focus in favor of gore and general unpleasantry with little redeeming value.

After the initial wave of undead in Night of the Living Dead and the collapse of cities and suburbia in Dawn of the Dead, Romero now jumps still forward in time. Several months into the zombie plague, a dozen humans huddle isolated in an underground bunker. Their fortress is sufficient to protect them from the barbarians outside the gates, but they have lost radio contact with the outside world. They make occasional sorties to nearby cities via helicopter, but encounter nothing but more hordes of zombies. For all they know, they are the last humans on the planet.

Lori Cardille in Day of the Dead
When there’s no more room in hell, zombies will break through the styrofoam walls

The disparate batch of survivors in Night of the Living dead was essentially a cross-section of civilization, but Romero narrows his focus here onto the military and scientific worlds. The humans trapped underground include three scientists, two civilians, and seven soldiers. All of them are slowly losing their minds save for level-headed scientist Dr. Sarah Bowman (Lori Cardille), valiantly researching a cure. As is now customary in Romero’s zombie flicks, Sarah is an atypical protagonist for a horror movie. The most capable and sane character in Night of the Living Dead was a black man (Duane Jones), a huge deal for movies of any genre in 1968, and still rare now. Sarah is a woman, another social group historically subjugated by society, not to mention typically reduced to screaming eye candy in horror movies.

The nerve-wracking 28 Days Later (2002), director Danny Boyle’s contribution to the zombie genre, borrowed this scenario of an isolated batch of male soldiers acting without command, surrounded on all sides by hostile forces, and locked in a fortress with only one woman. Not surprisingly, things get ugly. To a one, the soldiers are despicably racist and illogical. But leader Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato) is actually correct about one key fact of their situation: the head scientist they have been ordered to defer to is indeed totally mad. Dr. Matthew “Frankenstein” Logan (Richard Liberty) is more interested in domesticating zombies into slaves than he is in either curing (as Sarah is trying to do) or eradicating them (as, naturally, the soldiers would have it). His star lab rat is a captive zombie dubbed Bub (Sherman Howard). The chained and tortured Bob is surprisingly sympathetic, possibly even moreso than heroine Sarah. He’s also the first instance in Romero’s movies of an intelligent, self-aware breed of zombie we won’t see again until twenty years later in Land of the Dead. But neither film makes much of the concept of zombies as a new life form, as opposed to the classic remorseless adversary typical for the genre.

Sherman Howard in Day of the Dead
Bub Zombie wants his MTV

As discussed in The Dork Report’s review of Night of the Living Dead, one key aspect of the zombie genre that has fueled its continuing appeal over the years is that a plague is a great leveler. Everyone is vulnerable to disease. Everyone is equal after death (or is that undeath?), be they male or female, rich or poor, of any race. And for the survivors, once society breaks down (and it always does when the undead walk the streets), all the money and creature comforts in the world become irrelevant.


You’ve been reading an entry in our George A. Romero Zombie Cycle Film Festival. Join us in revisiting all five canonical episodes in the original epic zombie saga:


Must read: Homepage of the Dead’s complete Day of the Dead archives, including the original script

It’s All Too Much in the Wachowski’s Live-Action Cartoon Speed Racer

The good news is that Andy & Larry Wachowski’s Speed Racer is fun and eye-poppingly extraordinary to watch. As with their breakthrough The Matrix (1999), there’s the strong feeling that you’re seeing something new; not just emergent technologies but a whole new style of moviemaking. But the bad news is that it’s all… too much. Why undertake such huge effort and expense just to replicate the essence of a poorly written and cheaply animated TV series that no one, not even the geekiest Japanese anime otaku (fanboy), really misses? This film might have been so much better if they had jettisoned the baggage of the intellectual property (a misnomer in this case) and told an original story in this radical new style.

The movie incarnation of Speed Racer has inherited the visual quirks of the original 1960s cartoon, cross-bred with the information-rich computerized motion graphics of modern televised sports. The color scheme is dominated by bright, primary colors like Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (made in a era before computer graphics and digital color grading). Talking heads laterally pan across the screen, usually redundantly narrating the onscreen events for us. The effect is like watching ESPN; when two cars crash, an announcer promptly tells us that two cars have crashed.

Christina Ricci in Speed Racer
Christina Ricci can see for miles and miles

The film is also modeled after video games and Japanese anime in general. Huge sequences are entirely computer generated, with what little live action photography there is most likely shot against greenscreen soundstages. The Wachowskis’ resident special effects mad scientist John Gaeta meticulously stages the many incredible car chases like battles in a war movie from an alternate universe. Like Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel trilogies, the movie practically is animated. Just watching it, it’s possible to imagine what the tie-in video game must be like.

Every single line of dialog is a cliché, and so too is the plot. Speed (Emile Hirsch) is a young race car driver, a lone honest man in a corrupt industry. Yes, his name is actually Mr… Speed… Racer. His disgraced older brother Rex died a mystifying death years before, providing Speed with the motivation to prove himself both as a driver and as an honest man. Pops and Mom Racer (Susan Sarandon and John Goodman) sometimes appear in the same shot but hardly ever exchange words. Speed also has an insanely annoying little brother with a Brooklyn accent and, god help us all, a monkey. The oddball extended Racer family also includes the Australian mechanic Sparky and Speed’s helicopter pilot-slash-girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci, whom at some point has lost her endearing baby fat and now seems startlingly skinny). The whole gang apparently lives together in the same house, with Speed’s car parked in the living room like an extra sibling.

Lest all the action be of the vehicular variety, the Wachowskis wisely scatter about a few awesome wire-fu fight sequences designed (apparently not designed by The Matrix’s genius choreographer Woo-ping Yuen). The most exciting and visually impressive fight takes place on a snowy plain, with the falling snow providing manga-like motion lines (a characteristic of Japanese comic books). The fights are even more fun when John Goodman gets in on the act, and one understands why he might have signed on to such a project (if for reasons other than a big studio paycheck).

Emile Hirsch in Speed Racer
Like audiences worldwide, Emile Hirsch is a little overwhelmed by the visuals

If I were to single out one tragic flaw, I would say that Speed Racer suffers, like Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales, with too much backstory. Overlong for a kids movie, it’s almost one full hour before we get to the main plot: Speed Racer must join forces with adversaries Racer X (Matthew Fox) and Taejo Togokhan (Korean popstar Rain) to accomplish something-or-other and defeat some kind of injustice that I can’t quite recall, all of which has something to do with veteran racer Ben Burns (Richard “Shaft” Roundtree). Who can remember details after two-plus hours of sheer sensory overload? Speed Racer feels like a sequel to a movie we haven’t seen, with enough threads left dangling (mostly involving the true story of Speed’s brother) to set up a hypothetical third episode.

For any number of possible reasons, this very expensive folly bombed and we almost certainly won’t see that trilogy. The Wachowski brothers were perceived to have fumbled the wildly popular Matrix franchise with two obtuse sequels (although this Dork Reporter would argue in favor of the minority opinion that the second, The Matrix Reloaded, is actually their masterpiece), they produced the thickheaded V for Vendetta (muddying up and widely missing the point of the powerful anarchist graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd), and one is rumored to have had a sex change. With such a track record it’s not surprising that the moviegoing public, even the genre-loving fanboys that make up Chud.com and Ain’t It Cool News might have soured on them. Plus, the original Speed Racer cartoon is exceptionally cheap and lame, so much so that even myself as a child could tell it was crap.

Warner Bros. revealed their embarrassment by issuing the DVD as a bare-bones single-disc release, at time when even the crappiest movie seems to merit a deluxe multi-disc package padded out with hours of self-congratulatory value-added material. There’s nothing at all on the DVD about the obviously groundbreaking special effects. Instead, the filmmakers decided that what audiences wanted was more monkey (the vile beastie stars in the closing credits sequence) and more annoying kid brother (who costars in a mockmentary feature with an embarrassingly poorly acted appearance by producer Joel Silver).

Girls and Their Unicorns: Ridley Scott’s Legend

Ridley Scott’s 1986 fantasy experiment Legend features a very young Tom Cruise (before he was “Tom Cruise”), costarring opposite vats upon vats of glitter. Cruise’s performance is bizarre and high-pitched, composed of crouched poses and unfocused stares. But to be fair, how else would any actor portray an uncivilized wild-child with a weirdly mundane name like Jack? Mia Sara is unmemorable as Princess Lily, save for the spectacularly plunging neckline she sports in the second half of the film (during which many parents were no doubt covering the eyes of their innocents).

There is plenty of very pretty cinematography to be enjoyed, but This Dork Reporter regrets to report that Legend is awful and almost painful to sit through. I recall loving the roughly contemporary fantasy film The Dark Crystal (1982) as a child, but ruined the pleasant memory by watching it again as an adult and discovering it to be tedious and condescending (with, granted, some incredible puppetry and art direction). Perhaps if I had seen Legend as a kid I might feel similarly.

Tom Cruise in Legend
That nice Cruise boy

The entire plot hinges on the kinds of typically arbitrary rules that characterize the fantasy genre. Pay attention, kids: only a virgin can touch a unicorn, it seems, but alas, they should never do so, lest the sun set forever and the world be consumed by The Lord of Darkness (Tim Curry). What’s a virgin, you ask? Shush. Not inconsiderable running time is taken up with awkward slapstick involving midgets, de rigueur in every movie fantasy since Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits. Speaking of, Gilliam’s dark romp is by far the best of the 1980s heyday of fantasy movies – a genre not to return to prominence for almost two decades until the lucrative franchises Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, His Dark Materials, and The Chronicles of Narnia.

Mia Sara in Legend
Girls and their unicorns! This can only end in tears.

Even the old-school optical special effects are crummy, for which it is no excuse to say the film came before the age of CGI. The unicorns’ rubber horns visibly wobble, and a fluttering Tinkerbell-like fairy creature is a painfully obvious little lightbulb mounted on a wire discernible even on a low-resolution TV screen. No inch of skin is left unpainted with glitter, and never have bubble machines worked so overtime since The Lawrence Welk Show. But perhaps the most puzzling detail of all is in the sound design: unicorns sing whalesong, evidently.

All sorts of questions arise as screenwriter William Hjortsbertg’s plot comes to its trainwreck conclusion: What happens to The Prince of Darkness’ evilly goading mother? Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman’s brilliant Beowulf script did not fail to explore the vast Freudian story potential of a monster’s manipulative mother. And where did the last surviving unicorn find its mate at the end? Did the unicorn killed earlier in the film revive somehow, and if so, why? Even Disney’s Bambi didn’t chicken out by resuscitating the murdered mother.

Harold & Kumar drop LSD with the NPH in Escape From Guantanamo Bay

On the way to a hoped-for idyll in their spiritual home Amsterdam, our two beloved stoners Harold and Kumar take unintended detours through Cuba (as collateral damage in the War on Terror), Florida (where they drop trou’ for a “bottomless” party), Alabama (rudely interrupting a Klu Klux Klan klatsch), and Texas (whereupon they pass the Mary Jane with the worst George W. Bush impersonator ever).

Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay
Harold and Kumar are the best of buds. Get it? “Buds”? Oh, never mind…

Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) are the 21st Century’s answer to Cheech and Chong, and their first film was a rather enjoyable, freewheeling affair that reveled in its absurdist plot twists and even aided in making Neil Patrick Harris a star again, deservedly. But this sequel unfortunately wastes too much time pairing Harold and Kumar off with their difficult-to-distinguish brunette love interests. It’s as if, like Talladega Nights, it wants to toy with heterosexual “gay panic” humor, but chickens out; the implication is that Harold and Kumar are actually more in love with each other than anybody else, or even pot.

Sold out but not a soldier: Richard Kelly’s bizarre Southland Tales

I don’t know if the roughly 140 minute version of Southland Tales that made it to DVD is a butchered or merely abbreviated version of a masterpiece, but what I just saw is an unholy mess. I’m one of director Richard Kelly’s apologists for his divisive film Donnie Darko, which I found strangely affecting. Like Southland Tales, it was heavily edited down before release, and the abbreviated theatrical version doesn’t even make logical sense. Its emotional appeal is hard to pin down, and yet I found it hugely involving and moving. I was rooting for Kelly on his big follow-up, and even though it made the best-of-the-year lists of both The New York Times and The Village Voice, I guess I’m on the losing team now.

The opening moments recall Cloverfield and the TV series Jericho with accidental home video footage of a nuclear attack on Texas. A long barrage of infographics, television fragments, and narration follows, outlining a tremendously involved backstory. Kelly has obviously created a huge fictional universe, the bulk of which proves superfluous to the comparatively simple story that concerns the bulk of the film that follows. Perhaps Southland Tales is the first entry in this Kellyverse, and indeed, it is comprised of four chapters (starting, no doubt modeled after Star Wars, with Chapter 4). But after this failure it’s hard to imagine Kelly securing the funding to complete additional chapters (at least as films; television or comics seem both more appropriate and more frugal).

Wallace Shawn and Bai Ling in Southland Tales
Be thankful I couldn’t find a still of them making out

The ensemble cast is extraordinarily weird, featuring The Rock, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Seann William Scott, plus a complement of little people. No less than five past and present Saturday Night Live cast members also appear: Cheri Oteri, Amy Poehler, John Lovitz, Nora Dunn, and Janeane Garofalo (credited but I think I only spotted her in one shot near the end). Rounding it out are Miranda Richardson, John Laroquette, Wood Harris (Avon Barksdale in The Wire), and Kelly-booster Kevin Smith. And is that the weird little French woman from The City of Lost Children? You haven’t seen a movie until you’ve seen one with Wallace Shawn and Bai Ling making out. But in a way I suppose that makes sense; they are both aliens from another planet. Different planets, maybe, but still.

Justin Timberlake in Southland Tales
Justin Timberlake shills for Budweiser (not shown)

The music is likewise eccentric: Jane’s Addiction’s punk/prog masterpiece Three Days figures in the dialogue as an enigmatic prophesy and as the introduction to the official movie website, and Moby does his best Vangelis impression for his original score. Justin Timberlake (filmed in separation to most of the action) serves as narrator but also stars in a bizarre musical interlude and/or Budweiser commercial and/or Iraq war commentary: “I got sold out but I’m not a soldier.” And, why not toss in pop star Mandy Moore?

Peter Cushing as Doctor Who in Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D.

Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D., the second Dr. Who feature film, follows Dr. Who & The Daleks by one short year, and clearly betrays where the public’s interest lay at the time by ditching any mention to Dr. Who in the title. The first film largely disregarded the TV show’s premise and continuity, and the sequel similarly plays fast and loose with its own predecessor. Dr. Who has yet another young female relative, a niece named Louise? Why does she call her uncle “Doctor”? Did Barbara elope with that twit Ian?

Otherwise, the screenplay is loosely based on the original 1964 TV serial “The Dalek Invasion of Earth,” starring William Hartnell. It follows the original farily closely, especially in the early seqences showing a war-ravaged London and the iconic image (well, to Brits, anyway) of a Dalek rising out of the Thames (actually better realized in the original – here they cut away from a Dalek head poking out of the water and back to it fully emerged).

It’s just barely slightly better in terms of action and spectacle (the Dalek flying saucer isn’t half-bad, considering), but nevertheless just as mind-numbingly stupid. Let’s start with the title. Why is it set in the future? Everyone’s dressed in 1960s clothing, with contemporary rifles and cars. If there’s nothing to be gained, it might as well be set in present day. Plus it would be that much more of an exciting thought for kids to to imagine an invasion might happen today rather than next century.

Look out, Robo-men! Why did the Robo-men take off their helmets and suddenly become human again when the Doctor simply orders them to attack the Daleks? And why do they scream like little kids? Why do the Daleks have fire hydrant guns? Why do the Daleks only take male prisoners? What do they do with the women?

Of course, there’s also the music. After another set of pointless psychedlic opening titles, a sequence depicting a bank robbery is set to… Beethoven? WTF? After that we get a generic lighthearted score, determinedly whimsical even when Dr. Who discovers a corpse. Incidentally, this Doctor is badass. Crossing the countryside on foot, a Robo-Man orders him to halt. The Doctor shoots him and turns right back to the map. “As I was saying…”

And finally, why did the Daleks invade England? The “magnetic influence of the North and South Poles” is located under Watford, of course!

Peter Cushing takes Doctor Who to the big screen in Dr. Who & The Daleks (1965)

Dr. Who & The Daleks is the first of two feature films based on the classic BBC TV series Doctor Who. They are, as the fans say, “non-canonical,” and thank god for it. The TV series was a true all-ages affair; typically enjoyable for children, but with extra layers of subtext for grownups (or at least attractive ladies for the dads). But this movie is dumbed down to the point where it’s dull and condescending to even the youngest audience member.

Screen legend Peter Cushing plays “Doctor Who” (in the movie, that’s apparently his actual name) as a silly old (human!) man, a harmless mad scientist. The other characters don’t fare well either. The original TV incarnations of Ian and Barbara were both intelligent and capable, employed in the noble profession of school teachers. This Ian is a total prat, serving mainly as comic relief, and Barbara is reduced to a screaming plot device.

Other things grate to longtime fans (it’s “the TARDIS,” not just “TARDIS”!) and regular viewers alike (the music is wretched). Truth be told, cheesy effects and silly technobabble are actually great pleasures to be found in the original series, but the extra money spent on the movie must have gone to the wrong places (the sets and extra Dalek props, evidently). The advanced Dalek technology includes lava lamps (I’m not kidding). And make up your minds, Daleks, is it a neutron or neutronic bomb?

And finally, if it’s pitched so low, what are the moral lessons it has to teach youngsters? Based on what The Doctor has to teach the naive glam-rock aliens threatened by the Daleks, don’t trust anyone who claims to want to help you. Instead, fight and kill them.

King Kong (1976)

King KongAbout the only saving graces of this piece of gorilla dung are: A) Jessica Lange actually does a pretty good Marilyn Monroe, and B) Seeing the movie now provides some unintentional emotional oomph: Kong is actually drawn into Manhattan by the primal lure of the World Trade Center.

Whose idea was it for Kong to walk upright? Would it have been too much work for the guy in the suit to hunch over and drag his knuckles a little? And he throws like a girl.