George A. Romero’s third and last great zombie film ‘Day of the Dead’ is a perfect representation of the 1980s, yet it is also the most unappreciated entry of his original flesh-eating undead trilogy. Romero embodied metaphors in his “walking dead” in ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (1968) and ‘Dawn of the Dead’ (1978) with biting social commentaries that accurately summed up the respective times of their releases. This was with domestic racism and the Vietnam War in the ‘60s and with a more tongue-in-cheek satirical jab at times as well commentating on society’s obsession with consumerism in the ’70s. This was with profound insight realized on screen by a horror filmmaker with more guts (excuse the pun) and vision than most auteurs of the genre before, then and now.
It is no different in this respect here either but what has divided fans over this instalment is the lack of sympathetic characterizations as opposed to the earlier stories with a group of characters made up of mostly cold self-serving soulless people. Because of this, the element of humour from the last outing is also missing that was another disappointment for devotees of this on-going saga of zombie apocalyptic survival. The writer and director’s also more is better approach to gore cinema is some of the most potently explicit to ever be featured in a wide released horror movie at this point. With George A. Romero’s eye on the times as observant as ever how else was this going to be other than a grim and relentless experience in a decade in which “greed is good” and excess is everything. We also see here the zombies starting to evolve.
The dead continue to feast upon the flesh of the living and have now overtaken the entire world. Only fragments of the U.S. government and its military remain that are forced into hiding in fortified bases and colonies with scientists desperately trying to find a cure for the outbreak. In an underground bunker in Fort Myers, Florida, a group of scientists supervised by a squad of soldiers are doing just that using zombies in experiments. However, tensions between the scientists and the soldiers that were there from the beginning start to reach boiling point.
The soldiers led by the central antagonist here the constantly angry, narrow-minded, homicidal and authoritarian Captain Rhodes (Joseph Pilato) does not believe in what the scientists are doing and is impossible to be reasoned with. He threatens their lives and only wants to leave with his men. Scientist Sarah (Lori Cardille) remains one of the voices of reason in the base and has even more pressure to deal with as her lover one of the soldiers Miguel (Antonè DiLeo) is mentally deteriorating and is becoming a threat to the safety of everyone. When Rhodes and company find out that chief scientist Logan (Richard Liberty) whom they have nicknamed Frankenstein has been using the corpses of soldiers from their squad for his experiments and for zombie food matters become dire. Sarah along with helicopter pilot John (Terry Alexander) and radio operator McDermott (Jarlath Conroy) find themselves in a dangerous struggle for survival that only escalates further when the outside threat of the zombies intervenes.
Romero originally envisioned a sweeping large-scale zombie epic but with his budget halved to $3.5 million, he revised his screenplay numerous times to fit in with the limitations of what he had to work with. Taking it as a positive he strives for character development with a simple narrative set primarily in one location much like ‘Night of the Living Dead’. This is an intense and hellish claustrophobic experience in the nightmarish and creepy setting of the underground installation with the threat of what is outside forever present oozing an immense amount of tension filled human drama as conflicting personalities clash within it. They tear each other apart instead of doing what they should be doing by reaching a compromise and working together to deal with not only what threatens their lives but the bigger picture of the wiping out of the entire human race. This breakdown in communication conveys that we are our own worst enemies who are hopelessly incapable of dealing with an epidemic that will destroy our very existence. This is a tale of human tragedy existing in just one small part of a huge apocalyptic landscape; it can take just one small group of people working together to solve the entire world’s problems and this is what makes it a tragedy of such magnitude.
With the exception of the opening sequence set on the streets of Florida and of course its grand orgy of blood n’ guts finale the zombies are pushed to the side throughout most of the story featured as guinea pigs in the experiments of Logan. Most notably is the gentle zombie he has named Bub played by Sherman Howard whose portrayal depicts the filmmaker's evolution of his zombies as they are now starting to learn and think for themselves. As the zombies evolve humankind’s civilization crumbles in its wake unable to deal with such extreme and hostile threats due to its infighting. This is a revolution as a new society is coming in (the zombies) and devouring (literally) the fragile old, which are incapable of handling it.
Criticisms of the lack of likable characters is not entirely founded. Cardille as Sarah is a strong female lead a rectification of the writer and director's own criticism of what he considered a weak characterization of Barbra in ‘Night of the Living Dead’. Sarah along with her colleague Fisher played by the criminally underrated character actor John Amplas (George A. Romero’s own brilliant 1977 vampiric character study Martin) is a couple of the last strands of moral fibre here. In addition, Logan’s desire to teach the lovable Bub in his research for his theory that zombies can be controlled for coexistence shows us we are cable of actually being human. Only for it to be extinguished by Romero's bashing of the collective military mind-set represented by the brutality of the despicable Rhodes who embodies everything that is cruel about humanity so convincingly played by Pilato that we long for him to get his comeuppance foreshadowed in his first meeting with Bub. An issue I have is that I have never felt once that there was anything ever romantic between Sarah and Miguel as it just does not seem believable. There is zero chemistry between Cardille and DiLeo and how their scenes together are written contributes to making this relationship unconvincing.
The sugar coated on top fools you ending bookends the proceedings related to Sarah’s dream sequence in the opening with the marking of a calendar counting down the days. In her dream sitting alone in the confines of a room in the bunker she reaches out for the picture of a pumpkin field on the calendar with the month of October over only for the hands of the undead to break through the walls conveying that their time there is almost up. SPOILER ALERT. In the closing scene set on a tropical island having escaped with John and McDermott, we see Sarah marking on a calendar the fourth day of November. Despite the paradise setting and the tranquil non-diegetic music accompanying it, this illustrates the counting down of their eventual demise. John and McDermott are quintessentially ‘80s not giving a fuck. They never believed in what the scientists were doing and just wanted to get away to spend what time they had left soaking up some sun. They get their wish here that brings forth the message that humanity’s arrogance and selfishness will ultimately be its undoing. A superficial ending to a film representing a superficial decade. END OF SPOILER.
This is SFX maestro Tom Savini’s magnum opus. He cites his work in Joseph Zito’s solid 1981 slasher The Prowler to be his greatest work and while I agree it is his masterpiece in that sub-genre, here his talent peaked pushing his special make-up effects abilities the furthest they could go. The care of Savini’s craft is meticulous with the best-looking decaying zombies of any entry in this sub-genre with every single one of the many zombie extras uniquely standing out with their appearances. It is also a gorehound’s wet dream with some of the most intense prolonged set-pieces of carnage ever committed to celluloid as the zombies chow down on human flesh with every bite and the ripping apart of the bodies captured in graphic detail. This is also the most atmospheric of George A. Romero's Dead series induced by John Harrison’s always-present highly memorable Carpenter-esque electronic synth soundtrack.
While I think Romero’s ‘Day of the Dead’ is not quite as thematically strong as his ‘Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Dawn of the Dead’, it is still easily the darkest entry in his zombie saga and is one of the most pessimistic and nihilistic works of 80’s cinema. It has become my personal favourite of the entire franchise and just my favourite zombie movie all together. Very memorable characters deliver very quotable dialogue. It is claustrophobic, moody, harsh, has tension that can be cut through with a knife, is atmospheric, is plentifully gory in drawn out splendour and it features the most memorable zombies ever to shuffle across the screen - one of which of course includes the fantastic creation of the endearing Bub. This is endlessly entertaining and is certainly better than the three in the series that followed (although 2005’s ‘Land of the Dead’ comes close as a solid enough follow-up). Essential viewing for any zombie aficionado, hardened horror veteran in general and newcomers to the sub-genre and genre as a whole. A must see.
**** out of *****
Dave J. Wilson
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