The name of Joe Pilato won’t mean much to your average moviegoer, but to your George A. Romero and veteran B-movie fans, his name ignites a most uproarious smile. They will remember his crazed performance in Day of the Dead. They will quote his classic lines: “I’m running this farm now Frankenstein…” to his infamous final line in that masterpiece of zombie cinema: “choke on it…”
It was the one role that made him unforgettable to so many people: Captain Rhodes, a sadistic military officer whose mental state continually declines as the movie progresses.
Even though Pilato’s performance is often relegated as being “over-the-top” (which it is, in the best possible way), it’s certainly not one-note. Pilato at times gives the character childlike sensibilities. He seems like a lost kid sometimes, especially in the scenes when Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty) is slyly mocking his inferior intelligence.
The conflict between these two is not one of good and evil, but of their separate cultures. Dr. Logan is a man of science and only needs the respect of his academic peers. Rhodes meanwhile is in the army, where machismo and obedience are important character traits. When Rhodes is suddenly forced into becoming the commanding officer, he knows he will have to show strength and resolve. Being constantly outsmarted by the wise-ass doctor will not make him look good in front of his peers.
Rhodes’ eventual turn to pure villainy is even understandable under the circumstances, as he discovers that Dr. Logan has been experimenting with his departed fellow soldiers. Dr. Logan knows the primitive world in which Rhodes presides and has little respect for it — despite the fact that the soldiers are the ones continually risking their lives.
Throughout the film, he refuses to take him seriously which causes increasing tension between the two. But just as Rhodes is losing his mind in that bunker, so does Dr. Logan as his experiments on zombies and fallen soldiers turn increasingly bizarre. He even starts to feed one zombie named Bub — who is showing signs of intelligence and empathy — human flesh in order to domesticate him. From Rhodes point of view, seeing his comrades being fed by a zombie, you can completely understand why he finally snaps and becomes the film’s highly enjoyable antagonist.
Out of the Romero trilogy — let’s ignore the rest for now — it’s certainly one of the most memorable performances, and the character certainly receives the trilogy’s most memorable demise.
This was in 1985, 34 years ago. Pilato was 36 at the time. It would prove to be the highlight of his career. After this he appeared mostly in B-movie fare, though he appeared briefly in Pulp Fiction as a “Dean Martin Lookalike.” Fans of Digimon will be delighted to know that he voiced the character of MetalGreymon. (I have no idea who that is.)
Due to Pilato never being a massive star, it’s hard to find more information about him. From the tidbits I heard about him, he seemed down-to-earth. On the infamous Youtube Channel RLM, Mike Stoklasa recalls a humorous anecdote about meeting him at a horror convention, where Pilato was severely inebriated. This made me wonder whether he suffered from alcoholism in his life.
Reading comments from other people meeting him, you can see that he certainly did not suffer from delusions of grandeur. He would quote his infamous DOD lines to please his fans. He would kid around with them and ask if they had any cigarettes on them.
Pilato died earlier this week. He was 70 years old. Unlike his most infamous cinematic death — being torn apart and eaten alive by zombies — his real-life death occurred peacefully in his sleep.
Some might not be impressed with his resume, but however you look at it, he’s forever lodged in cinematic history. It’s too bad he would never do anything as great again, but that’s how it works sometimes.
Years from now, his performance will still have viewers laughing and cheering. Even if you don’t like the character, his horrifying demise will surely entertain you.
As long as people watch movies and appreciate the classics, people will appreciate and treasure his performance. As long as people watch movies and appreciate the classics, there will be Joe Pilato fans.
Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on Joe Pilato? Comment down below!
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