by Steve Habrat
The third entry in George Romero’s Dead series is without question the darkest entry into his epic zombie series. It is also probably the biggest cult film out of all of them with a loyal fan base who applaud its genre bending ideas and introductions. I was unaware that Day of the Dead existed until I saw the special features on the Dawn of the Dead DVD, in which Romero referenced the isolated third installment. It would be another year before I stumbled upon the VHS in a Huron video store. That evening, I sat down and watched what was perhaps the most challenging film experience of my life up to that point. Day of the Dead is a ruthless and angry film. It also offers up one hell of a final bang for the series, which was originally supposed to be much grander than what Romero actually delivers. Budget concerns forced the Godfather to alter his vision, but what he came up with is captivating to say the least. It also pushes against the happy-go-lucky conservatism of the 1980’s and shakes things up with a harshest ending of the original three Dead flicks. Personally, I didn’t really know what to make of the film. We had some vaguely aware zombies, strident characters who screamed at each other constantly, and a super gross ending that is quite an accomplishment for visual effects of the time. I should point out that many would find themselves outraged by this film and deem it too hard to endure. This is a very unsightly film.
When the final frame of Day of the Dead flashed on the screen, my eyes had to have been as big as saucers. I remember muttering “wow” to myself while getting up to eject the tape. I didn’t know if I should retreat to the bathroom to vomit or if I wanted to cut all ties with everyone I knew at that point in my life. People are extremely ugly and when things go south, there will zero unity. And what to make of the scientists versus the military? According to Romero, we cannot and should not rely on either of them. It would be a few months before I stumbled upon his other epidemic film The Crazies, which would further push the button of fear towards the evil military. Romero seems to believe in only one thing in Day of the Dead—chaos. Every character is at the others throat, ready to pull the trigger and flee the underground bunker that the two groups inhabit in the wake of the apocalypse. This film takes place in Florida, miles away from Romero’s beloved Pittsburgh. The score is filled with playful synthesizer squeals and pounding snare drums. Its zombie’s are the most eccentric, ranging from a clown, a military man, and a zombie missing its lower jaw, exposing it’s glistening and slithering tongue. It’s main character Sarah (Played by Lori Cardille) is at her breaking point and every other male presence is interested in proving he’s more masculine than the other. This is a seriously unusual film, boys and ghouls.
Sarah is a scientist, aiding the eccentric Logan (Played by a beyond crazy Richard Liberty) in his quest to understand the walking dead. He performs gruesome experiments on the samples that Sarah, her mentally collapsing boyfriend Miguel (Played by Anthony Dileo Jr.), flask-sipping radio operater William McDermott (Played by Jarlath Conroy), and Jamaican helicopter pilot John (Played by Terry Alexander) venture into infested cities to capture. They are at the mercy of Capt. Rhodes (Played by cult favorite Joseph Pilato) and his trigger-happy band of soldiers. They are demanding scientific explanation from Logan on the zombies who have claimed the earth. They threaten that if they don’t see results soon, they will take the helicopter and leave the scientists to fend for themselves. Their frustration is also growing with William who can’t reach any other survivors on his rickety radio equipment. They are beginning to suspect that they truly are the last human beings left. As insanity, murder, and a stunning breakthrough rip through the dysfunctional group, it all culminates in a horrid climax that shows us that our unwillingness to work together will, once again, be our downfall. Heard that one before in a Romero zombie movie?
This is Romero’s cleanest Dead film of them all. It’s tightly and proficiently made, with top-notch cinematography and make-up effects. Seeing the film in Blu-ray shows how pristine the exertion is here. His other two zombie films tripped a few times over technical goofs, which are forgiven because these are after all just a group of independent filmmakers making something out of nothing. Here, Romero has a little something and boy does he use it. Day of the Dead means business and it acts as a kick to the intestines that will leave you clutching your gut and your head for days. It all rises out of some serious camp, which is shocking to me because the film is so austere and oddly existential. Sometimes we wonder if any of the characters see the point in fighting back against the ghouls above. Where can they go if they need to flee? Are they the last human beings on earth? Will they discover what brought this plague on? But Romero turns to us in the final hour and asks us this: When the world ends, do you want to end with it? Is life worth living once all order is gone?
Day of the Dead adds a new element to the zombie genre that hadn’t been explored up to that point. What if the ghouls started to recall aspects of their old lives? Bub (Played unforgettably by Sherman Howard) is a zombie that Logan befriends. A docile creature, Bub is much more curious about what is in front of him. He apparently didn’t get the memo that zombies are supposed to think about brains and brains only. He doesn’t attack the humans and he shows more interest in a book and a gun than trying to rip boards off a window. He even speaks! This is a trait that would show back up in Romero’s towering 2005 comeback Land of the Dead. This was especially off-putting for me upon my first viewing because I wanted zombies to be simply shuffling shells to show up in waves and decimate all that stood in their way. Bub was hard to accept, but he has become a beloved character of mine. I adore him and I can’t help but get chills when he stalks the barbarous Rhodes around the bunker. It has brief hints of Dawn of the Dead’s boiler room stalk sequence, but it never reaches the level of spookiness that Dawn obtained.
If you find this film too curt upon your first introduction, give it a second chance. It doesn’t make the most flattering first impression, but I strongly believe that was Romero’s intention. He wanted this to be a tough experience. See it strictly on the fact that the make-up effects are marvelous, as the zombies are starting to decay (the film supposedly takes place several months—a year, maybe?—after the initial epidemic) and the gore effects are repulsively real. Rhodes gets the best line, as he is ripped into bit sizes, he tells the zombies to “choke on ‘em”! It’s funny but horrific and powerful. He remains a bad ass up to the nasty end. The rest of the players are all a bit too overblown and the result is some heavy doses of over acting. This film also contains the foulest language of all the Dead films, with countless usage of “fuck” to the point where it becomes monotonous. Yet it all feels like Romero is pushing his point home, the he is pissed off and just not going to take it anymore. Romero disappeared from the zombie genre after this for twenty years. This film was a bomb and was critically panned when released. In keeping with the tone, the bleak nature is fitting but was rejected. Overall, Day of the Dead still shines brightly, solidifying its place in the horror realm as a classic. It may not be as scary as Night and Dawn, but it’s still a fervent beast of a horror film. Grade: A–