The 1980s were the apex for setting the standard for horror movies in popular culture and created the litmus test that successful horror cinema today is measured against.
But one film from an otherwise historically prominent director and auteur, George Romero who conceived the canon of zombie film with his classics Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, yet Romero's final installment of his Walking Dead trilogy was not as well received at the box office as Dawn of the Dead was. Day of the Dead (1985) was just as masterfully crafted, yet did not obtain the accolades it deserved until a recent retrospective appreciation resurged in zombie film fandom.
Two theories I propose stem from the works of Susan Jeffords and Susan Faludi in Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Regan Era, The Remasculinization of America: Gender and the Vietnam War and Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women respectfully. Briefly, if one is not familiar with the plot of Day, it takes place in the present day, the result of societal decisions made in Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead there is but a handful of humans left alive as a result of the zombie apocalypse. The small group resides underground in an old RV storage unit. Three civilian scientists, one radio engineer and one helicopter pilot race to find a cause and cure of the epidemic while the small military unit ordered to facilitate them, quickly grows impatient with their lack of progress. Lori Cardille plays Sarah, the lead scientist; calm cool and collective she is the voice of reason in the ever-degenerating unit. Several times they go out to look for survivors, found none and while resources and supplies run low, the dictatorial, Captain Rhodes decides he and his men will fly out of there to live the rest of their lives as they see fit. As in other Romero films, it is the human element that unravels the last vestiges of human society...not the walking dead. Timing, with a film's release, is everything in how it resonates in the collective consciousness of viewers. This film was too critical of America in a time of Reagan-esque optimism. Released in 1985, at the height of Reagan's popularity and re-election landslide, the consciousness of the audiences perhaps was not keen on considering the American Military as the "villains." Jeffords explains that the 1980's ideology was trying to "redeem" something it had lost in the 60s and 70s as a result of the social movements and Vietnam disaster: patriarchal masculinity. In the Regan-era, militarism was seen as heroic, patriotic, manly and "American" in the specter of the Cold War against Russia. A film depicting the military as malfeasant, seen through today's lens, is without a doubt a significant factor in why the film did not fare well in the mid 80s.
Another factor in the film's box office failure is perhaps its feminist undertones with Sarah as the strong woman and hero of the film. Susan Faludi wrote in depth about films like Fatal Attraction demonizing the independent woman who did not fall into the norms of the re-masculinating of America. Women who were in the workforce, single and childless were seen as the force behind the decay of the family unit. This convention ran rampant in most Neoconservative narratives in mainstream films of the decade. Faludi postulates that Hollywood "restated and reinforced the backlash thesis: American women were unhappy because they were too free." (Faludi, 113) Romero's film challenged this dominant ideology. Perhaps if this film was to have been released in the 1970s, or modern day, it would have seen much more recognition.
This clip is one the most well known scenes. Tired of the men's misogyny she decides to leave the meeting. Rhodes promises to court martial her and execute her if she does so. She is possibly the last woman on earth and last person who may have answers to the walking dead plague. However his totalitarian tendencies mark the beginning of the end. And finally, in context of the pandemic occurring today, the psychology of the characters Day of the Dead is not far off from prophesying how the last handful of humans surviving the earth would fare by extrapolating ever increasing non-scientific and authoritarian behaviors the American government is displaying as the crisis continues.
George Romero & COVID-19
It's always a pleasure to read about Goerge Romero and Day of the Dead in particular. Especially regarding the social and political implications of the COVID-19 virus, I thought the following might be helpful:
Contagion and Pandemic
This is so interesting--I love how you recontextualize this film (which I haven't seen in years) through not only Faludi's work but in our pecular cultural moment of COVID-19. The point you make about "ever increasing non-scientific and authoritarian behaviors" is downright chilling. It especially brings home your argument that in Romero's films, it is the human contingent that is the most dangerous. Looks like it's time for a rewatch!
Very interesting piece. Your interpretation, especially passages '[...] America in a time of Reagan-esque optimism' and 'In the Regan-era, militarism was seen as heroic, patriotic, manly and "American" in the specter of the Cold War against Russia', reminded me about two analysis of other subversive films: Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space and Martin Scorsese's After Hours. The first one is depicted by Danny Peary (Cult Movies. The Classics, the Sleepers, the Weird, and the Wonderful) as surprising disapprobation towards U.S. military: '[...] in this one godawful, terribly made, poor excuse for a picture, Edward D. Wood is more critical of America's government and military strategy (that calls for an arms build-up and further nuclear experiments) than any other director dared to be (270).' After Hours on the other hand is often referred to as an yuppie-horror that accents nonconformity, spontaneity, social outcasts, homosexuality, and crime — themes which were, as Leighton Grist argues, absent in mainstream culture during conservative triumphalism of Reagan era (The Films of Martin Scorsese, 1978-99). In fact, many of 80s yuppie nightmares (i.e. Frantic, Miracle Mile, Into the Night, Cold Dog Soup) didn't achieve good results in box office as well.
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