As the camera records a man lowering himself feet-first into a hole in NYC's subway system, it feels as if I’m descending into the dark lair of a horror movie. The man entering the hole informs the viewers that he was scared the first time too, but the fear faded after a few trips. Horatio's proclamation that “Custom hath made it in him a property of easiness”, is a suitable epigraph for this film. Of course, this habituation process is much easier for the viewer than the people documented, a tension amplified whenever the camera emerges from the tunnels or exposes the surrounding scenery. Mesmerized by the tunnel dwellers' stories and domestic practices, it’s easy to forget the grime and filth surrounding these people because we aren’t present to smell the stench. To evoke the fetid environment outside the shacks where much of the film is shot, the filmmaker frequently splices in sequences of rats searching for food within the mounds of trash piled up near their homes.
Despite the wretched conditions, levity animates many of the conversations and interactions between the residents. They cook, clean, play with their pets, and share tales from their past. Two tunnel dwellers, Tommy and Greg, return to the surface to earn money. The former collects aluminum and plastic items, while the latter searches through dumpsters to resell appliances, CDs, and anything else he deems valuable. Rummaging through the trash reveals boxes of donuts and other edible food items tossed by restaurants that the residents bag up—their own form of takeout. Greg points out that one trash pile he frequents regularly places all the edible food in separate bags away from the trash, a practice that keeps the food clean.
One of the most haunting aspects of the film is the sense of community that develops between the residents. When someone burns down Dee’s home, Ralph invites her to stay with him until she can build a new home. The film captures the petty arguments around cleanliness between the two, a phenomenon common to roommates above and below ground. They manage to live together despite their disagreements. Dee prepares the dog food for Ralph’s adopted dog, and Ralph shows concern over Dee’s crack use. After witnessing so many scenes of warmth and sacrifice, Dark Days encourages us to share these acts of love happening beneath our feet with our neighbors living above the surface.