Essential to the success of any siege film is some greater absorption of the concept of walls breaking down. One shudders just thinking about the scene of Wyndham’s collapse into a million writhing beetles in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987), or when a father’s malformed double falls through the ceiling onto his bathing daughter in Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers (1993); one feels, in these moments, the decomposition of Gilles Deleuze’s molar identities into molecular processes and constituent parts. The fallacy of the self-constituting whole is revealed, but the pieces appear newly ready for recombination. It’s a feeling of disgust, but not one devoid of possibility.
George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985) opens with such an image — a thousand hands bursting through a surprisingly thin wall, clawing desperately at a skin that’s no thicker. The third installment of the Night of the Living Dead series, Day of the Dead, begins underground: months or years into the outbreak, a group of scientists research zombies in a bunker under the begrudging protection of a group of army officers. The barricade keeping the zombies out is already porous by the time we arrive, but the walls erected between the living appear hardened by internal pressures, even as the individuals themselves disintegrate within them.
Bigotry, sexual violence, post-traumatic stress disorder — these are the surviving relics of human society. Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty), the leading researcher among this group, emerges as the last remaining positivist. Known as Frankenstein to the others, his disregard for human life better resembles Josef Mengele. Logan’s breakthrough case comes in the form of Bub (Sherman Howard), a captured zombie. If there is a moment of hope in Day of the Dead — an occasion in which some strange possibility bursts from the suffocating entropy all around — it’s when Logan plays “Ode to Joy” for Bub, his star pupil. A momentary respite from the state of utter breakdown that’s unfolding elsewhere, the single close-up of Bub listening almost recalls the closing moments of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (1931). Just as Chaplin is there seen for the first time, so too are the familiar sounds of Beethoven made to seem fresh when heard by Bub’s virgin ears. A new understanding begins to bridge the chasm: Bub begins panting, and his expression reorients toward the ceiling, suddenly conscious of the unseen sky overhead.
Romero’s overriding pessimism is not to be waylaid, though, and Day of the Dead’s pent-up violence seeks new targets within the space of the claustrophobic bunker. Sadistic Captain Rhodes (Joseph Pilato) turns his gun on his own men, ordering them to shoot Sarah (Lori Cardille), a scientist, if she doesn’t obey his orders. A private in Rhodes’ battalion, Miguel Salazar (Anthony Dileo Jr.), can barely keep his suicidal urges at bay, and when another character resorts to self-immolation, we don’t question his motives. We also learn Logan has begun covertly dissecting recently deceased army men. All the while, buried underground alongside them, and reminiscent of the Culpeper Library of Congress facility, are the censuses, weather reports, microfilmed newspapers, and election results of all American history. Observing all this as if from a great height, John (Terry Alexander) surveys the waste: “Now who gonna give a shit?” Romero here puts the fruits of the human project on display and asks us to justify trying to save this.
Meanwhile, Bub recognizes himself in a mirror. He picks up a book, Salem’s Lot, and attempts to read it. When presented with a phone, he holds the receiver to his ear as if to communicate something. Romero’s zombies always reflect the worst aspects of humanity, and Bub’s suggestion of the inverse yields a potentially devastatingly corrosive implication. If the remaining walls appear to only strengthen as the end nears, the metaphysical divide between human and zombie seems newly penetrable. It’s into this breach that Bub slowly steps, and also here that an unforeseen sense of possibility arises. But while Bub conveys a certain prelapsarian innocence in these moments, he also does things like involuntarily salute when Rhodes enters his cell, much to the captain’s disgust. Squinting at Bub under fluorescent lights, we can see both outcomes at hand: regeneration, or the extension of the old dogma, past death — a new American colony in the afterlife.
Day of the Dead’s climax proceeds from the sickening revelation that Logan has been feeding Bub fresh entrails from fallen soldiers. This cradle of the new world heralded by Bub — nursed on a bucket of human spleens, kidneys, and lungs — is also the death of science, in this literalization of the disintegration of the molar body. Romero’s coup de grâce, though, comes after the inevitable collapse of both physical and metaphorical walls: as zombies run freely through the bunker. Bub turns and shoots Rhodes with his own pistol. As Rhodes’ molar body is dismembered by the other zombies, he offers one final triumphant salute. Earlier in the film, John offered this prescient perspective on the bunker itself: “This is a great big fourteen-mile-long tombstone… with an epitaph on it that nobody gonna bother to read.” With his Day of the Dead, Romero seems to say, “Don’t even bother to mark the grave,” with a pessimism that’s nearly unrivaled in American cinema. To this auteur of the dead, salvation isn’t for us — it’s from us.