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Shadowvision: “DAY OF THE DEAD” (1985)

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Welcome to Shadowvision, a regular column in which Fangoria.com revisits modern horror films in black and white. The purpose is to analyze these films through a new lens, seeing if the classically informed viewing experience will give a new angle to familiar images. If you’d like to watch along at home, it’s simple: go into your TV settings and desaturate the picture completely, then adjust the contrast and brightness to fit either standard or high definition.

When it comes to zombie cinema, George Romero’s provocative, intellectual nature is what separates his “OF THE DEAD” films from other installments in the genre. Despite the craftsmanship shown in RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD or Lucio Fulci’s ZOMBIE, George Romero’s undead efforts contain a deeper subtext beyond the blood and guts. And while DAWN OF THE DEAD certainly drove home the slave-like nature of consumerism in our mass culture, that film lacks the unrest and frustration behind NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and DAY OF THE DEAD. This is not to say that DAWN OF THE DEAD is not as good as night or day, but in DAWN, there’s a bit more spectacle to the satire, whereas the other films carry more emotion and anger to the subtext beneath the zombies.

And it’s for this reason that this writer has decided to roll out the grand return of Shadowvision with DAY OF THE DEAD, allowing the film to be visually comparable to NIGHT as opposed to DAWN. By taking on this new skin, this writer hopes to see if DAY OF THE DEAD’s powerful message about the military industrial complex and racial tension hits as hard as NIGHT’s comments on the same matter. Furthermore, will Tom Savini’s groundbreaking FX work feel more haunting, and will the film’s scale feel more intimate when portrayed with a more stark contrast?

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For this edition of Shadowvision, this writer suggests one uses an HDTV for the transfer, as to best capture the black and white transfer while retaining the natural contrast and cinematography. Some HD sets might have a “monochrome” setting in their advanced picture settings, but the same effect can be achieved by either completely desaturating the image or dialing back the color to zero. For SD sets, one might want to adjust the contrast slightly as to compensate for the naturally darker image.

In black and white, DAY OF THE DEAD does feel like a markedly different experience, and surprisingly, the lack of color in the film makes the story feel more bleak and hopeless as opposed to paranoid and intense. In fact, without the full depth and details of the film’s production design, DAY OF THE DEAD in monochrome even feels a bit more claustrophobic, with the interplay between characters feeling more volatile than coincidental. And while the film’s commentary on the military has often played one-sided in its intended form, there’s a certain free-for-all aspect that comes with the black-and-white version; by comparison, the scene in which Sarah and Bill discover Logan’s experiments genuinely feels terrifying in its alienation.

However, DAY OF THE DEAD does suffer a bit from the translation as well, specifically when it comes to the zombies themselves. While the swarm of zombies certainly feel more organic and scary in black and white, Savini’s comprehensive, detailed FX work does suffer from the lack of color and information that is now covered in shadow. From that end, certain shots (including the iconic jawless zombie and the operating table disembowelment) do lack a certain impact, even while others do pack a more visceral punch (any reveal in the dark, cavernous restricted zone is legitimately dread-inducing). Furthermore, the Everglades exteriors don’t quite feel as imposing in black and white as the rural environment of Pennsylvania in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

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When it comes to Romero’s subtext, however, there is definitely a case to be made about the visual translation from NIGHT to DAWN. While NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, by nature, feels more like a straightforward horror movie than DAY OF THE DEAD, the thematic material and social messages feel more impassioned in DAY, resonating greater than some of the more on-the-nose, provocative takes on the same material in DAWN. Hell, when you’re not concentrating on the the more gruesome aspects of the divide between Rhodes and Larson, it’s easier to focus on the man behind the gun and green army get-up; while certainly villainous still, a monochrome DAY OF THE DEAD better sells the emotion behind Rhodes’ dangerous convictions.

Overall, while DAY OF THE DEAD is a fascinating and entertaining watch in black and white, it does criminally under-represent Tom Savini’s killer FX work. Perhaps if this writer was able to watch NIGHT and DAY back to back in black and white, there might have been a stronger recommendation for the latter without the looming shadow of DAWN lingering upon the film. So while DAY OF THE DEAD can make for a worthwhile monochrome experience, the film feels as if it’s missing a vital organ without the vibrant blood and guts to accompany the interpersonal inhumanity.

Recommended for black and white consumption?: No.

About the author
Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel "THE I IN EVIL", and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
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