Remembering Beethoven

Howard Sherman in Day of the Dead

It’s become a cliché to say that horror films are under-appreciated. But what rarely, if ever, even gets noticed is a good performance in a horror film. At which point I can imagine legions of fans leaping up from their armchairs yelling, ‘What about Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, numb nuts? That got an ^&@*! Oscar!’ Well, I don’t think too much of that performance, for reasons I’ve explained in Your Home Phone Number. A performance that really impresses me is the one Howard Sherman gave in Day of the Dead. It was so good, in fact, that it wasn’t until my third viewing of the film that I realised just how good he was.

In Day of the Dead, a group of soldiers and scientists are holed up in a vast underground bunker while, overhead in the ‘real world’ the undead roam in their millions. One of the scientists is obsessed with the idea of ‘training’ the undead, of finding a way to control them. And to this end he’s been working with one of the undead, a living corpse he’s called ‘Bub’.

deep in bub's cortex are the memories of a previous life - hazy and barely remembered, but there all the same. He remembers shaving when he’s handed a razor, but his zombie reflexes mean that he rips chunks of flesh away as he moves the blade across his cheeks. He knows that you pick up a book and turn the pages, even if the words flickering in front of him are meaningless. Place a gun in front of him and he has enough vestigial memory to realise that the reason it doesn’t go bang is because there aren’t any bullets in the clip. And when the scientist places headphones over his ears and plays him some Beethoven, his eyes light up with a strange madness that something so wonderful could exist.

But Bub is dead. his skin is grey and flabby and wrinkled. His jaw protrudes, revealing rotten teeth. His bloodshot eyes bulge. When he moves, he moves like a drugged animal and when he ‘speaks’ he can only produce grunts and muffled howls. He looks and acts, in other words, like a village idiot as played by Monty Python. And this, I think, is why his performance has been ignored: he’s too good.

Instead of the lumbering, hands-outstretched-in-front-of-them zombies that we’re accustomed to in horror movies – and even the original Night of the Living Dead indulged in that one, even if only to wrong-foot the audience – Howard Sherman gives us one that still, however dimly, remembers fragments of his previous life. He lets you share every moment of his dim comprehension, right down to the flicker of baffled sorrow when he stumbles across the body of the scientist who protected him, murdered by a solider he then tracks down and shoots to death - with the same gun he was given in the experiments, and which he’s now worked out how to load.

It’s a truly original performance and whenever I watch it, I find myself believing that this is what a zombie might actually be like. But, of course, failing the actual emergence of the living dead, there’s no way of verifying my theory. So we’ll go on giving Oscars to thespians slumming it with a box of borrowed tricks.

© Nick Garlick 2017