What’s The Score? Volume IV: John Harrison’s ‘Day of the Dead’

I can say with absolute confidence that George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead is by and far my favorite horror movie. I’ll go so far as to say that it’s in my top ten favorite films of all time. It was one of those movies I saw as a wide-eyed 10-year old and it sort of rewired my brain. Sure, the gore was earth-shattering to my 5th grade mind, but that wasn’t what hooked me. It was the idea of these four strangers hopping a weather chopper and escaping the madness of a society crumbling into its own doom. The idea of finding refuge in an abandoned mall and creating a kind of temporary “normal” in a temple built to worship capitalism, only in the end to realize that none of it really meant anything. What good is cash registers full of cash and wheelbarrows full of appliances when outside those walls society was figuratively and literally eating itself alive?

Okay so not all of that locked firmly in my frontal lobe when I first saw DoTD. The irony of their situation didn’t start sinking in till later viewings, as did Romero’s jab at consumers and brainless buying of meaningless garbage. I just thought it was cool that these four people were living large in a mall(a mall that had a resemblance to my own local mall) and that they could crawl through the ceiling and end up in a gun shop, or JC Penney.

Romero’s follow-up to Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, didn’t quite touch the artistic heights that Dawn did. He was hit with budgetary issues which caused him to have to cut his script down significantly, which in turn made for a story that was lacking a bit. There was also some problematic dialogue, mostly with the military meatheads. Some of the acting felt a little stiff as well. But for me these were minor concerns, as the film still shined in terms of look, premise, and the gore had gone completely next level. The effects were mind-blowing(literally), and when I watched Day the following summer after seeing Dawn I truly felt it couldn’t be matched. It was only years later re-watching Day of the Dead that the dialogue fumbles really stuck out to me. In terms of a trilogy of horror films, Romero had made one of the best, and it still holds up to this day.

Now what I’m going to say next may shock some of you, but while I think Dawn is a far superior film I feel that Day of the Dead has a far better score. What? What did I say? That John Harrison outdid the maestros Goblin? Yes, I did say that. Hey man, I LOVE Goblin. And I LOVE their Dawn of the Dead score, for sure. But in terms of locking into the vibe of the story and carrying us along I feel like John Harrison’s amazing score for Day of the Dead just totally nails it.

Day of the Dead feels very much like an 80s film. It has a brightness to it. There’s blue skies and sun(when we’re not in the underground complex.) Harrison captures the sound of the 80s perfectly. There’s moments when Harrison’s music could fit into an episode of Miami Vice. There’s a buoyancy to the pieces that I think elevate the downer film we’re watching. There’s a kind of claustrophobia with Day, having a good portion of the film take place in underground bunkers and caves, as well as sterile rooms where everyone just seems pretty miserable all around. Harrison had worked with Romero previously on Creepshow, so they already had a rapport. They slid right into Day and Harrison seemed to know exactly what to do. He countered the darkness with some much needed light.

There’s just something about this score that puts me back in my parents living room during the summer of 1987. Hearing Harrison’s work here acts as a portal to my childhood. The music is very distinctive. I never saw Argento’s cut of Dawn till I was much older, so the Goblin tracks just didn’t resonate with me as much. Of course over the years that soundtrack has become a regular listen, as has Argento’s Zombi become a yearly viewing(along with Romero’s director’s cut.) Harrison’s score hits the nostalgia buttons a bit more for me.

I’m sure minds won’t be changed and that I’m not saying anything others haven’t already figured out, but I felt it was my civic duty to point out the genius work of John Harrison. Harrison is a writer, director, and actor as well as being a composer. He was the “screwdriver zombie” in Dawn of the Dead, is a Pittsburgh native, and wrote and directed the Dune miniseries from 2000(he’s an executive producer on Denis Villaneuve’s upcoming Dune adaptation as well.)

Despite some cringe-y moments, Day of the Dead is still an absolute classic. Even with the cards stacked against him, George Romero made one hell of a zombie film. Some of his intentions got lost in funding issues and a cut down script, but it still left an indelible mark on my psyche. So did John Harrison’s amazing score. Revisit it sometime, before the dead are walking the earth.

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