Day of the Dead. 1985. Directed & Written by George A. Romero.
Starring Lori Cardille, Terry Alexander, Joseph Pilato, Jarlath Conroy, Anthony Dileo Jr., Richard Liberty, Sherman Howard, Gary Howard Klar, Ralph Marrero, John Amplas, Phillip G. Kellams, Taso N. Stavrakis, and Greg Nicotero. United Film Distribution Company (UFDC)/A Laurel Production/Dead Films Inc./Laurel-Day Inc. Rated R. 96 minutes.
For me personally, though I love each of them and think they’re masterpieces of horror, George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead is my favourite of his first three major zombie films. The post-apocalyptic feel here is even stronger than in the previous Dawn of the Dead and I can’t get enough of it.
Romero dives into more sociopolitical issues again here, as he did with the other two Dead movies. This screenplay deals with the head-butting elements of science and military in a world ravaged by the zombie virus. Most of all, though, this movie really gets down to the nitty gritty, raw side of humanity – what we, as a species, would devolve into, regressing back to a primitive state once the zombie apocalypse begins. Through the military vs. scientist dilemma throughout Day of the Dead, this microcosm of the post-virus landscape in a bunker under the ground, we’re able to see how far humans will go, or better yet how far they can fall. Even further than that, as the good Dr. Logan says “they are us“: Romero tries to introduce a clear example of how zombies are still human, merely men and women reduced to a primitive, less active and intelligent state. So what interests me most throughout this fascinating zombie film is how the line between man/womankind and our primitive animalistic self seems to only be a thin one, a light veneer barely separating the two states.
Romero knows us, better than we’d like to admit.
When zombies have overrun the world, a dozen people – government scientists and military – live in a bunker below the earth. The scientists, led by Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty) and Dr. Sarah Bowman (Lori Cardille), attempt to try and figure out how to battle the zombie virus itself. Although, Logan has some different and perhaps unorthodox ideas about the way to experiment in such things. The soldiers, now under command of Captain Henry Rhodes (Joseph Pilato) – a hotheaded and equally stubborn, violent man – do not approve of what the doctors are doing.
After the isolation of being underground starts to emotionally and mentally unhinge Private Miguel Salazar (Anthony Dileo Jr), the outside world of the living dead manages to break through, coming down below to meet the still-living.
And then, on that day, hell breaks loose.
The opening scene, to me, is one of the things I’ve always loved and found memorable about Day of the Dead. Not sure why, I suppose because there’s a creepy dream-like quality about it which sets the tone: this is going to be a nightmare. And it is, in the absolute correct sense of the word, in the right way a horror film ought to be a nightmarish experience.
Truly, this film is a haunting zombie horror. In my opinion the special makeup effects are best here. Savini gives us amazing gore to soak up. Greatest of all comes quickly, after we’re introduced to the man lovingly referred to as Dr. Frankenstein by the other scientists and the military men, Dr. Logan: a zombie on one of the operating tables leans over, ripping a strap from its arm, and reaching out its guts and innards fall out of the stomach’s cavity onto the floor, slopping in its own mess. Nasty bit! Even better, the dream imagery comes back – like the beginning scene – except much more brutal, and it emulates the zombie’s guts falling out: as Sarah lies in bed, she imagines seeing Miguel similarly lean over with his insides evacuating, then comes back to reality fast. These alone are worth the price of admission regarding special makeup effects. Savini really pulls out his big guns in this movie, taking away the comic book garishness(/awesomeness) from his Dawn of the Dead zombie work, replacing those qualities with equal excellence on top of dirty, disturbing and realistic blood. Not knocking his previous work for Romero, on the contrary – I love it (check here if you don’t believe me). There’s simply a better, more terrifying aspect to the special makeup effects here; while the cartoon-like essence in Dawn of the Dead came a subtle creepiness, here it’s an outright mortifying feeling Savini gives us. Thank you, Tom!
BEST DECAPITATION IN ANY FILM – EVER. My vote goes for a scene around the 1 hour 27 minute mark. A soldier is surprised from behind by a group of the living dead when they pin him down, each grabbing bits and pieces of his flesh, then tear his head off. My favourite part is his scream – as they start to pull the head off, neck separating from shoulders and sternum, his voice gets higher and higher until the vocal cords literally snap off, blood spurting, and the entire head is free. Amazing, amazing special effects here. Such beautiful practical work in the horror genre, really a crowning achievement as far as I’m concerned. And not just that: it’s nasty as all hell.
Human beings are shit. Romero knows this is at least partly true. One part of why I love the scientist vs. military conflict here is because each side is presented as having their faults or their wrongdoings; not every individual is bad, but neither whole side is presented as totally in the right. For instance, though the military men are all pretty much horrible human beings, except for Miguel (he’s just gone absolutely insane), the scientists are not all rosy and perfect either – Logan and his experiments are a little barbaric, mostly considering he’s opted not to tell the soldiers about using other dead soldiers for extra meat. So sure, the scientists are ultimately trying to do the right thing, in whatever way it can be accomplished. There’s still an unethical aspect to the way they’re going about the mission. What Romero does with this plot is show us how not all soldiers are culpable in the terrible actions of soldiers in general, just as not all scientists are working towards the greater good most scientists try and work towards achieving. Every side has their good souls, every side their bad. But the bad ones – man, does Romero ever show us how bad they can get when the going gets tough.
Generally it’s the sense of isolation which gets to me about this Romero masterpiece – it has so much suspense and tension because of its setting, generally lending itself to an air of eeriness. Night of the Living Dead was located mostly in the farmhouse, so there is a real sense of tightness, the characters enclosed and withdrawing further into the house at times. Dawn of the Dead even dared to get a little more claustrophobic because even within the mall, once zombies started to overrun the place there was nowhere for the survivors to go, or at least limited options of where to start running. What’s devastatingly intense at times about Day of the Dead is the fact they’re all underground. Even with the helicopter up above and a way to fly off, there’s still a ton of zombies trying to get in. Plus, once Miguel does the unthinkable after his craziness reaches its peak, the zombies filter into the underground bunker. So it’s WAY WORSE than the mall in the previous movie because so far below ground there are less ways to escape than a huge building aboveground. Add to that all the human elements of Romero’s wonderfully written screenplay, you’ve got yourself a backload of tension and unnerving suspense happening on an almost constant basis.
Another 5 star film from George A. Romero. I’m huge on his films in general, not just the zombie work. But god damn it if he doesn’t make the greatest possible use of the living dead, adding solid horror to solid writing concerning sociopolitical issues to create a unique brand of horror sub-genre storytelling. Not every last piece of his zombie movies are full of issues – some times it’s just great and vicious horror. Though, it’s hard to deny how well Romero captures the issues of the day. Moreover, still as I write this in 2015, the issues continue to stay relevant: we’re almost always living in an era where the brutality of the military and politicians with their want for war come up against more rational, scientific approaches to the world around us. Day of the Dead is a masterful horror film in general and one of the greatest zombie films ever made. Personally, it’s my favourite of Romero’s Dead series because there’s a wholly unique quality to it even above his others. If you’ve not yet seen this, please do so. Particularly if you are big into zombies – you’ll see a lot of this film’s influence in other more contemporary zombie movies, as well as The Walking Dead of course. And really, it is just a solid, effective work of horror well worth your undivided attention.