Yes, Sir. F**k You, Sir- Day Of The Dead

Suddenly, I got this conceit: Maybe I’ll do one of these every ten years, reflect a little bit of what’s going on. So Day Of The Dead really grew out of that 80s feeling of giving up on everything- government, the military, faith in the financial systems.

George Romero

In the dawn of the 1980s, Ted Turner launched CNN, giving America its first 24-hour news station. The early 1980s offered no shortage of noteworthy stories to constantly occupy TV screens. On December 8, 1980, Beatles’ legend John Lennon was shot and killed by Mark David Chapman outside of his apartment building in New York City. Many viewed the Manson Murders of 1969 as the end of the “hippie” era and the murder of John Lennon a decade later also marked a turning point in American culture. Bands such as The Clash, Dead Kennedys, and Bad Religion had emerged, launching political punk that would only grow in anger and popularity over the next nearly forty years. The following year, in 1981, John Hinckley Jr. attempted to murder President Reagan in an attempt to get actress Jodie Foster’s attention and love. Hinckley was released from prison in 2016 for the attempt on the President’s life. Also in 1981 the first IBM computer was released and was quickly followed by the first Macintosh computer being introduced by Steve Jobs in 1984. Though still denied by many, in 1985 the first holes in the ozone layer were reported. 

One of the most impactful pieces of news came in 1982 when the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention recognized the issue of the AIDS virus. In 2005, scientists were able to trace the disease back to the late 1800s, when it was a disease that infected chimpanzees in Africa and became known as simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), specifically in Cameroon. SIV was believed to make the jump to humans around 1930 after chimpanzees were hunted and humans came into contact with infected blood. The infections then spread across Africa and eventually the world. The infection became known as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) left untreated. 

After a month or so of a person becoming infected with the virus, they usually begin showing typical flu-like symptoms. If the exposure was just an acute, the person might not even notice anything out of the ordinary in the beginning. The early stages are sometimes called asymptomatic HIV infection or chronic HIV infection. If the virus is caught in a person during this early stage, they would be prescribed antiretroviral therapy (ART) and it would effectively keep the virus at bay. It could slow down the progression of the virus or completely stop it from progressing. HIV is spread between humans through sexual contact, blood-to-blood contact (such as sharing needles), or from mothers to infants (during pregnancy and breastfeeding). If it’s left untreated, that’s when it evolves into AIDS. When AIDS takes over the body, it leaves the immune system more vulnerable to illnesses, called opportunistic illness. Common symptoms are fever, chills, weight loss, weakness, sweats, and swollen lymph glands. Remember- it’s not HIV/AIDS that directly stated as the cause of death, but rather an “AIDS-related sickness”. 

Once the virus had made the transition from chimpanzees, there were an estimated 2,000 people in Africa who were infected by 1960. The first HIV epidemic was in the 1970s in Congo. In the capital city, Kinshasa, there was a quick and drastic rise in opportunistic illnesses. The speculation is that an infected individual traveled to the capital city and the virus entered the urban area through sexual contact and quickly made its rounds that way. The virus continued to spread throughout Africa in the 1980s, mostly through soldiers, truck drivers, labor migration between the western and eastern ends of the continent, and sex workers. There was a shameful stigma attatched to sex workers with their “promiscuity and high-risk lifestyles”. The first case of HIV in South Africa was believed to belong to a white, gay male steward for an airline. That man later died of pneumonia in 1982.

It all started as a rumour… Then we found we were dealing with a disease. Then we realised that it was an epidemic. And, now we have accepted it as a tragedy.

Chief epidemiologist in Kampala, Uganda

Across the Atlantic, in June of 1981, the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention in America published an article in their weekly report about a new, rare kind of lung infection. The illness, called pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, was found in five gay men in the Los Angeles area. None of these men had histories of other illnesses and two had died between the time of the discovery of the illness and the publication of the article. That was the first report of AIDS in America, but they didn’t know it yet. By the end of the year, gay men in primarily California and New York were reported as having odd, rare, and aggressive “cancer” or illnesses, with 121 of the reported 270 cases rapidly passing away. That’s when some researchers began to refer to the condition as Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID). That name sparked a damning stigma to medical professionals and the public about the illness. 

It wasn’t until September of 1982 that the CDC first used the term “AIDS” and gave it the initial definition of “a disease at least moderately predictive of a defect in cell-mediated immunity, occurring in a person with no known case for diminished resistance to that disease”. In 1983, the CDC begins to believe that AIDS is shared through sexual contact or exposure to infected blood given that most cases were found in gay men with multiple sexual partners, people who injected drugs intraveneuously, Haitian people, and hemophiliacs. The panic of the AIDS crisis had begun to swell. People in America were beginning to believe that the illness affected exclusively gay men and that something as simple as a handshake or being around someone coughing was enough to trasmit it. The CDC had to release a statement that they had identified all major ways that the virus spread and let the public know that casual contact was safe, but that didn’t change the views of more conspiracy-minded or homphobic people. 

The Reagan administration first publicly acknowledged AIDS during press conferences between 1982-84 and they were complete assholes about it, to say the least. As it is, “acknowledging” might be too solid of a description for that back and forth between press secretary Larry Speakes and the press pool. Journalist Lester Kinsolving was a notorious frequenter of these press conferences who was also a conservative and an open homophobe. Kinsolving was the first person to bring up the topic of HIV/AIDS to the press secretary and he was met with laughter from Speakes as well as other members of the media, even as Kinsolving referred to it as “the gay plague”. At the time he was asking these questions, most of what the public perceived of the illness was wild misinformation, such as part of a question Kinsolving asked involved, “an estimated 300,000 people have been exposed to AIDS, which can be transmitted through saliva…”. Kinsolving’s personal beliefs aside, he was still trying to ask questions that hadn’t been asked to one of the most powerful people in the world about how they were going to be proactive about stopping a health epidemic. 

These political shit garglers have not gone away either. Before he was Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence was Indiana’s loudly conservative Republican and dangerously naive governor who also served in the House Of Representatives. In 2011, he supported an amendment defunding Planned Parenthood, a safe haven for HIV screening. This lead to a Planned Parenthood in Scott County, Indiana, closing its doors. Scott County is a lower-income county, with nearly 20% living below the poverty line, with a high rate of intravenous drug use. Pence was also open about his opposition to needle exchange programs, which inadvertently lead to people with drug addictions to share needles. Over the next few years, nearly 200 cases of HIV were identified and Governor Pence was finally forced to acknowledge the epidemic in January 2015. It still took him until April 2015 to temporarily allow needle exchange programs in a bit of an attempt to slow the spread, while still not showing any attempt to provide funding for drug rehab or mental health programs. 

And here we are, in 2020, with the guy who stuck his fingers in his ears while singing “Lalalalalala” while a HIV epidemic spread through the state he was in charge of has now been appointed to lead the response efforts for the potential outbreak of the coronavirus (Corvid-19) in the United States. 

So now, let’s go back to the 80s. 

The bricks for George Romero’s third installment in his series of zombie movies began to fall into place in 1982. Romero had teamed up with author Stephen King for the horror anthology Creepshow and it had such box office success that Romero was able to turn his brain back to a zombie story. 

Having plenty of hellish real-life inspiration from the world to go on, Romero’s initial script for Day Of The Dead was a whopping 204 pages and “involved nothing less than a multi-tiered society where the lowest classes of humans are raised to feed the zombies. In turn the undead are slated to be ‘tamed’ to work as slaves to maintain the ruling elite”. So it was kind of like White Zombie, minus the flesh-eating zombies part. The production company was not willing to give Romero the $7 million dollar budget he would need for his grandeur vision so he was forced to greatly tone it down. The story held onto its underlying themes of science vs. military control vs. civilians, which would show itself in shouting matches and power struggles between the characters. Romero held onto the ideas that he was forced to cut from Day and would later use some of them in his 2005 zombie endeavor Land Of The Dead, such as the series of safe high-rise buildings for the upper class. Effects artist Tom Savini said that some of the ideas Romero initially had were reminiscent of “Raiders Of The Lost Ark with zombies”. Romero also scoffed at the idea of presenting his latest zombie flick in 3D, after the early 80s had seen the likes of Friday The 13th Part 3 and Jaws 3-D. 

As a military group they were there for research and, of course, now the need for what they are doing is all but gone. With society gone, who are they going to report to if they find anything out? All of a sudden, when that structure is gone, they don’t quite know how to behave or they cling to old behaviors and no one talks to each other and no one communicates. So there’s this sort of tragedy about how a lack of human communication causes chaos and collapse even in this small little pie slice of society.

George Romero

The events of Day take place over four days, as told to the audience by a calendar with the days marked off with Xs, with it appearing to start on Halloween. We open with an isolated, claustrophobic shot of our heroine, scientist Sarah (played by Lori Cardille), alone in a white-walled room with a dramatic build up to a jump-scare of a mass of zombie-hands thrusting towards her through a latex rubber wall. Cardille had a resume of work in soap operas and theater work but Day was her first (of very few) movie roles. A Pittsurgh-native, her father was locally famous as Chilly Billy on Chiller Theater (a favorite of young Night actress Kyra Schon) and for having a bit role in Night Of The Living Dead, which came out when Lori was in the 8th grade. She takes a commanding lead with her ideas and processes and has no problem with just telling the men, “Fuck you.”

I think I was still partly apologizing for the first film, where Barbara was just Jell-O.

George Romero, on the character of Sarah

After the audience adjusts from the whiplash of the opening dream sequence, we see a set-up built with the same ingredients as Dawn Of The Dead– four survivors in a helicopter. Next to Sarah are John (played by African American actor Terry Alexander), “Flyboy” pilot John (Jarlath Conroy), and Miguel (Antone DiLeo). The four are flying over the Florida coast in an attempt to find anything or anyone. After only succeeding in finding a tropical zombie hoard, complete with an alligator scooting down the front steps of a bank, they return to an underground mine that they have claimed as their own lab/bunker/housing unit. On Sarah’s side as a fellow scientist is Dr. Fisher, played by John Amplas. Playing part of the side of the military men are effects artist Greg Nicotero and former professional football player Gary Klar as Sergeant Steele. Leading asshole, Rhodes, was played by Joe Pilato, who was already familiar with Romero after working on Dawn Of The Dead and Knightriders. Pilato was also part of the crew helping Savini with effects on Dawn. 

Richard Liberty appeared in Romero’s 1973 film The Crazies and he made his return to Romero to play the (mad) scientist Logan, who is referred to as Frankenstein. Frankenstein’s Monster is an almost loveable zombie named Bub, played by Howard Sherman. Like Victor Frankenstein showing off how his creation knows how to sit down and walk around, Frankenstein is proud of his prized project. The knowledge of the zombies continues to progress after the events of Night Of The Living Dead and Dawn Of The Dead. They go from being “mindless” to almost infantile knowledge. Bub picks up a book placed in front of him, a copy of Salem’s Lot, opening it and letting the pages sway from side to side. Romero was offered the directing job for the movie adaptation of King’s novel Salem’s Lot so he gave it a little nod there. He puts a razor up to his face in an attempt to shave a beard that isn’t there, he learns how to stop and start a tape player, and, upon seeing Rhodes in his military garb, salutes him. Rhodes, being the “hardened, respectable leader” that he is, is almost offended that one of these things would salute him and he refuses to return the gesture. Later on, after the zombies have flooded their underground sanctuary, Rhodes is literally torn in half, he squeals out a dying, “Choke on ‘em,” and Bub hits him with a salute as a giant middle-finger. 

Filming of Day was split between Florida and Pensylvannia. The majority of the film was shot in Wampum, Pennsylvania, in a former limestone mine that had turned into an underground storage facility. The seemingly “climate controlled” mine made it the ideal place to store large items, such as yachts, or fragile items, such as feature-film negatives. On the flip side though, the chill and humidity caused issues with keeping the makeup on the zombies and it caused many of the actors to get sick, to the point of Cardille getting a fever reaching 104. A sort of “cabin fever” also swam around the cast and crew. The days would start early and run late during shoots in the mine, meaning they would arrive before the sun came up and would leave after the sun went down. The scenic tropical shots were filmed just off the coast of Fort Myers, Florida, from the opening scene to the finale with our few survivors having made their escape via helicopter and finding a beautiful beach to land on. 

Setting up between Pensylvannia and Florida also presented the crew with an unforeseen challenge- finding zombie extras for the shoot in Florida. Once again, there were no shortage of eager participants around Pittsburgh, including the dean of Carnegie Mellon (alma mater of Romero and Cardille) and his wife. Some extras had the privilege of being zombies in Night, Dawn, AND Day. However, Florida had a zombie shortage. A call went out for about 800 zombies needed for a wide shot and Chris Romero recalls about only 36 showing up. Savini still got to build off of effects he had started to use in Dawn, able to add more character zombies, such as a football player and a bride, and got to give the zombies more detail in their makeup, giving them more distinction between ethnicities and how long they had been zombified. A distinct clown zombie would later reappear in Diary Of The Dead and even would be given a spot in 2009’s Zombieland.

Day Of The Dead was released in July 1985 That year also gave us another cult-popular zombie film- Return Of The Living Dead. Though the pair had split creatively, Romero’s collaborator on Night Of The Living Dead John Russo had kept at writing horror novels and working on other films. Included in his works, Russo had a sequel he had written to Night that he had been holding in his back pocket since 1972. In 1978, the year Romero was working on Dawn, Russo wrote that story out as a novelization and gave it the title Return Of The Living Dead. Then Romero and Russo agreed to let the other do their own thing with their respective sequel stories. Russo’s Return Of The Living Dead was released in the fall of 1985. The story plays out as an almost ramped up spin off, treating the events of Night as factual but played as fiction for a movie (“You mean the movie lied?!”). The story is filled out with bumbling and punk rock characters and faster, more talkative zombies.

A celebration of both films is happening at the Monroeville Mall in June of 2020 for their shared 35th anniversary. For more info on that check out http://www.thelivingdeadweekend.com 

Story time.

When Another One For The Fire was still in the idea phase, I knew I wanted to do my best not to half-ass anything. The topics I wanted to discuss would loop around in a tangled web and I was excited to circle around each topic that way. Part of that tangled web included watching the subsequent sequels/spin-offs/reboots of Romero’s zombie movies. 2008 saw a Day Of The Dead starring Ving Rhames (as Rhodes, with Rhames appearing in another Romero reboot after 2004’s Dawn Of The Dead) that went directly to video. I might not have had easy access to all of the possible Romero spin-offs but one of the ones I was able to get my hands on was 2018’s Day Of The Dead: Bloodline. I drove up the road to Family Video, I found the DVD in the “2 for $1” section, I came home, I got out my laptop, and I prepared to type out anything I thought would be relevant to touch on during discussion. 

Guys, gals, and pals, I give you my stream of consciousness while watching Day Of The Dead: Bloodline– 

“-And now these zombies are fast, too.RottenTomatoes 0% and 9% audience score, which is generous AF, this acting is atrocious, it’s been 20min and I’m surprised I haven’t turned it off, I’m watching this for you guys-starts at medical school, outbreak happens, jumps to “five years after the outbreak of the rotters” in the military bunker. Lot more people in the bunker- kids, trailers, still searching for the medical cure. Still have a Rhody asshole, still have the medical student woman trying to take charge and have people listen to her but she’s definitely sexualized in this one, and the fucking creepy guy who assaulted her is still pursuing her in zombie-form after the “five years later” (but he apparently has super high antibodies in his blood or some shit) but now he a fast sneaky climbing-on-shit zombie who somehow lived through five years, seriously, the creep cuts her name into his arm and assaults her and is somehow the Bruce Willis Die Hard of zombies crawling through the vents but he becomes the “Bub” and even as a zombie he fucking licks her face as she goes to draw his blood jesus christ I’m done I tried for y’all”

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