Reviews

'Day of the Dead' Is Shlock Without a Pulse

Day of the Dead ’s lazy attempts at sending up racism, sexism and consumerism betray the film’s obvious role as a product meant to distribute these sentiments because there was a market for them.


Day of the Dead

Director: George A. Romero
Cast: Lori Cardille, Terry Alexander, Joe Pilato, Richard Liberty
Distributor: Scream Factory
Rated: Not Rated
Release date: 2013-09-17

Recently Jonathan Franzen, one of America’s simultaneously most vaunted and belittled writers, carried on a well-worn tradition by decrying the alienation, narcissism and emptiness of the Internet age. He pilloried the Buzzfeed rhythm that has permeated into intellectual life.

For people younger than him, it's easy to forget that relatively recently, America was an uglier place in many ways. Easy as it may be to malign the millennials, it's almost certain that many tired old fights of the culture wars will die as the 20-somethings age. While we may avoid experiencing true sadness or joy by constantly looking at our phones, the Internet age has come with some checks on the basest of consumer tastes.

Case in point: Day of the Dead is shlock. But that doesn’t seem quite fair -- shlock can be delightful. James Ellroy elevated the already very interesting pulp crime novel genre to, in the words of William Vollman in his New York Times review “A highly controlled work of art.” ("En Route to the Grassy Knoll", William Vollman, February 26, 1995) The haunting white nothingness of Michael Meyers’ mask (actually William Shatner's face turned inside out) reaches towards the mythical. Even corn syrup soaked slasher flicks like Last House on the Left promise some version of feminine triumph over patriarchal brutality. Day of the Dead feels like a film whose makers were aware of the possibility nascent in schlock horror, but didn’t have the vision or the wherewithal to put enough effort into it.

Thanatos, the ancient Greek word for death, is used in psychoanalytic circles to denote the Death Drive, which opposes Eros, the productive, sexual, creative or life affirming drive. The Pleasure Principle was a dominant theme in Freud’s earlier work. It’s basic premise being that human beings did what they could to maximize their pleasure and minimize unhappiness. This view became untenable in light of subjects which would repeat traumatic or unpleasant events from their past. Freud thus posited the Death Drive to explain people’s seemingly illogical behaviors that inhibit their own enjoyment.

Attendant to America’s obsession with vampire and zombie movies have been many critical pieces that understand the trend through Thanatos. While we may be experiencing a kind of death-drive zeitgeist at the moment, Day of the Dead does not jive with this trend. The theoretical framework of Thanatos implies a fairly troubling world view that basically says, You are naïve to think you will ever be satisfied by the objects of your desire; there will always be a remainder and therein lies the authentic, the Real. Day of the Dead doesn't even provide a tantalizing object of desire, and thus has no hope of exposing desire’s veneer.

The film is glaringly a product of the '80s. Leading the way is tough girl scientist-soldier Sarah (Lori Cardille). Somewhere between an ersatz Ellen Ripley and a shallower Lorie Strode, Sarah tries to find a cure for the epidemic of dead-eyed, illiterate droolers, while weathering the comically played-up harassment of military chief Rhodes (Joseph Pilato). They are boilerplate without the steam. Tropes tend to cover up the real grit behind social issues. Battles over feminine power are not usually fought between neanderthals and sexy geniuses.

This brings us to the escapism of the film. At its worst, cinema can be a means of disengaging. A good deal of films silence nagging anxiety and allow the viewer to be passively transported from thought for an hour and a half. This drive is paralleled in the apolitical stance common to many drug addicts. Yet good film doesn’t have to taste like medicine. Woody Allen can make urban isolation feel like a flirtatious jaunt.

Film should not make one disengage. The great irony here, if you can call it “great”, is that zombie films are supposed to be a send up of mindless consumer culture. Is it any surprise, then, that even resistance as mild as this was coopted and sold back to the people the genre was supposed to criticize? The Met had a punk rock gala. Vice magazine has a parody twitter, @Vice_is_hip that is almost indistinguishable from the genuine article.

It’s unclear when Hollywood decided that American viewers were lazy, though the belief was certainly gaining traction in the '80s. Perhaps one contributing factor to short attention spans and the cancerous spread of disposable content is the deterioration of quality entertainment. This domain is no longer really the purview of films -- it's now the work of quality TV programming. There's nothing wrong with enjoying Stephen King or Jim Thompson. While entertainment can incite moral anxiety or sneak in political questions, it doesn’t have to. There is value in pleasure itself. The trouble is, it turns out that it’s quite hard work, satisfying people’s desires.

ay of the Dead’s lazy attempts at sending up racism, sexism and consumerism betray the film’s obvious role as a product meant to distribute these sentiments because there was a market for them. Say what you will about their effect on our collective IQs, but at least bloggers might make producers nervous about reinforcing stereotypes that today’s youth culture is not interested in.

The DVD comes with the usual array of special features: an audio commentary with writer/director George A. Romero, behind the scenes footage from special makeup effects creator Tom Savini’s archive and a new documentary, World’s End: The Legacy of Day of the Dead, which is nothing to write home about.

5

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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