The character of Dr. Sarah Bowman in DAY OF THE DEAD is just as strong as the much-praised Riple and Sarah Connor, and a lot more believable. Arriving onscreen between THE TERMINATOR and ALIENS, Day presents Bowman as a woman with just as important a job–saving the world.
Bowman doesn’t go out to space to kill alien bugs, and she doesn’t get to blast endless rounds into endless, easily-dispatched monsters. She also doesn’t rise from forklift driver to military commander in a matter of days. Bowman is a scientist who is part of a team, and is simply THERE from the start, carrying a gun, looking for survivors, and telling the scenery-chewing baddie “Fuck you, sir!” She doesn’t mutter this under her breath in a crowded office, or even discuss it with friends after work, she shouts it at him in a room of soldiers with machine guns.
Bowman is reliable when it comes to handling herself with a gun, and unlike the case in some movies, she isn’t seen as someone who’s adept simply because she’s a woman and has to be made to show up the men. While the military caricature hurts here as it did in Aliens–Cameron has expressed regret about his caricature of the Marines in Aliens–I can write it off because of the situation. What evil corporation would send that crew of inexperienced goofballs to collect their priceless bounty on an alien planet, lead by a commanding officer only on his second or third mission? In Day, everyone has been thrown together to try to find a cure after the epidemic of zombies was well under way; it’s perfectly understandable that the dregs of a military stretched beyond capacity would be all the government has left. Bowman isn’t a military genius, she just shoots when attacked.
Bowman’s significance as a female character in a horror/end of the world movie is in part related to two characteristics that aren’t present: romance and motherhood.
In both The Terminator and Aliens, the heroines have eyes for Michael Biehn’s tough-but-sensitive characters. In both cases Biehn is playing a feminist pin-up: the sensitive man who unquestionably sees women as his equal, is good at his job, can beat the crap out of the baddies until he needs to lose so the woman can display her superiority, plus he’s cute. Bowman is stuck with one of the most unattractive boyfriends in the history of dating. Anthony Dileo Jr. plays Miguel Salazar as the whiny, complaining ball and chain that in his female version had the audience rooting for the lead to dump her and run into the arms of the lead actress. From the beginning, Miguel is incompetent, stupid, and unappreciative of what he’s got in Bowman.
Why is she with this guy? Granted, the choices are limited, but if this simpering piece of walking perspiration is the best she could get she should have told him thanks but she’s really devoted to her career right now. While Bowman is always protective of him to the point where she hacks off his arm to save his life–perfectly non-superhero-ish for a scientist who’s been dealing with zombies for awhile–Miguel is abusive when not passive-aggressive, needs to shower more often, and just whines constantly. In the end when he does his self-sacrifice bit, Bowman doesn’t seem all that concerned with him. She’s got her own ass to worry about. If there’s a flaw in the script I think it’s this character; it just doesn’t make sense that she’d be with him. I mean, what the hell does she see in him? I had no idea I felt this strongly about this until now!
This leads to the most significant part of Bowman’s character makeup, which is the lack of a child as motivation. There are a couple of references to making babies, and some sniffing around by the pigs in the military (male scientists all being respectful of the one woman in the building, of course) (that’s snark), but Bowman is here as a competent scientist. Her subtext isn’t about finding a stand-in for a lost child (Aliens) or being important solely because of who she’s going to give birth to (Terminator), it’s about what anyone’s would be in this situation: Not having recurring dreams about zombie arms coming through the bedroom wall. Motherhood is no more a part of her character than is fatherhood to anyone else in the facility, and there’s no big deal made about this. This is significant in Romero’s world, too, when you consider the heroine of the more-acclaimed DAWN OF THE DEAD had a basketball under her shirt most of the time.
Lori Cardille’s Bowman is strong, she’s tough, she’s vulnerable. Not ‘soft’ because she’s a woman but beginning to crack because she’s a person. She tries to do her part to hold the group together, but she’s not superhuman, and she has no natural ability to use to handle The Boys–she tries to maintain the peace while the cowardly scientists and insane soldiers are clearly heading toward disaster. It’s also significant that once things have deteriorated she, Bill and John plan to take off. No “but what of the innocent children?” crap. Bowman wants to survive.
Day of the Dead has found life after its disastrous theatrical release. It’s praised–rightly–as Tom Savini’s masterwork, the cap to Romero’s ‘first trilogy,’ and for the characters of Bub, “Frankenstein” Dr. Logan and the entertainingly explosive Rhodes. Sarah Bowman missed her shot when her character was lost at the time of the movie’s release, and movie heroes are of their time, not often retroactively added to the popular consciousness. But although Ripley and Sarah Connor get all the praise, Bowman is the one who keeps both her cool and humanity while the world is falling apart, and the one I’d want on my side.