Day of the Dead

Dir. George Romero

In the wake of the zombie apocalypse, only small pockets of humans survive. A small group of scientists and soldiers are holed up in an underground missile silo. As the scientists experiment on forcibly captured zombie specimens to try and find a way to control them, the soldiers become increasingly impatient with the lack of results and are eager to wage an all-out war on the undead. Soon, the tension between the two camps erupts into a violent situation that is only overshadowed by the vicious zombie slaughter that surrounds them.

When George Romero wrote the original treatment for Day of the Dead, he intended it to be on a much grander scale, a ‘Raiders of the Living Dead’, if you will. Or as Romero once described it – ‘the Gone with the Wind of zombie movies’. Allegedly he and Dario Argento had planned to team up again to helm the project, however the funding from European investors fell through and Argento regrettably had to pull out of the project, leaving George with a finished script and an epic vision, but no money to realise either. Further budget disputes and an artistic necessity on Romero’s part to release the film unrated, ensured the budget of the film was eventually cut again. This forced Romero to strip back his story to its most basic elements, rewriting the script and reining everything in. The result is surely one of the bleakest, goriest, most provocative, chilling and sorely undervalued horror films of the Eighties.

The bulk of the film explores the increasingly strained relationship between the scientists and the soldiers. The small team of scientists comprises of Sarah and Ted (Lori Cardille and John Amplas) who work under Logan (Richard Liberty), or ‘Dr Frankenstein’ as he has been dubbed by the disgruntled soldiers, due to the gruesome experiments he carries out. Headed by the ever-strung out and deranged Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato), the soldiers are a crude motley crew who shoot first and ask questions later. They delight in the rounding up and barbaric treatment of the dead. Also making up the numbers are helicopter pilots John and McDermott (Terry Alexander and Jarlath Conroy). They, along with Sarah make up the human heart amidst the debris of the dark story, and the plethora of unpleasant characters that populate it. The various altercations and face-offs between scientists and soldiers grow more intense and deadly as the story unfolds. The actions of the soldiers mark them as the real monsters of the piece, not the zombies.

The inspired setting within a seemingly endless series of underground caverns, as well as being budget-friendly also adds an unbearable tension to proceedings, and as the suspense mounts, the sense of isolation, claustrophobia and hopelessness is almost unbearable. The opening shot of Sarah slumped in a heap of despair in a small concrete room immediately sets the mood of the film. A brief foray into the outside world under the opening credits reveals empty city-scapes, deserted boulevards and eerily silent city centres, populated by tumble-weeds, wildlife and the living, shuffling, perpetually hungry dead. As soon as we descend into the concrete Hades, we remain there for the rest of the film amidst sickly florescent lighting and a never-ending vista of concrete, stone and steel. A downbeat and murkily pulsating soundtrack courtesy of John Harrison is incredibly atmospheric, and constantly drives the narrative forward while never intruding too much.

The various experiments and autopsies depicted in the film are amongst the most gruesome of Romero’s career and the SFX were provided by Greg Nicotero (who also stars as Private Johnson). As the already bloodied and soiled events race towards their dark conclusion – and a horde of flesh hungry zombies penetrate the underground silo – Romero, Nicotero and co. unleash their bloodiest, wettest fantasies as limbs are pulled off, eyes hauled out of sockets, faces ripped apart, legs torn from torsos and bodies literally pulled apart and lovingly slopped across the screen. The death of Rhodes in particular is fairly protracted and jaw-droppingly visceral.

Typical of Romero’s work, a compelling and thoughtful subtext brimming with ideas and socio-political commentary lurks not too far beneath the surface of Day of the Dead. Romero mediates on the likes of fascism, martial law, personal freedom, democracy, scientific morality, spirituality and human compassion. The director once remarked that this film was a "tragedy about how a lack of human communication causes chaos and collapse". Romero had also previously explored the notion of the dead as ‘us’ in Dawn of the Dead, and he continues this concept in greater depth with the introduction of Bub (Howard Sherman), a seemingly docile ‘every-zombie’ who seems to possess memories of his past existence. Before long the scientists, and indeed the audience, are soon empathising with Bub as the lines between good and evil, right and wrong, are increasingly blurred and events spill over into a veritable quagmire of moral dilemmas and debates.

Day of the Dead remains as affecting today as it was twenty-five years ago and one of Romero’s most underappreciated and thought provoking treatises on death and the human condition.

To celebrate the film’s 25th Anniversary, those lovely folks over at Arrow Video have repackaged the film and released it on Blu-ray with a slew of special features including four sleeve art options; double-sided fold-out poster; ‘For Every Dawn There Is A Day’ collector’s booklet; ‘Day Of The Dead: Desertion’ – an all new exclusive 24-page collector’s comic featuring new Bub storyline; 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio and 1.0 Mono audio options.

Disc One (Blu-ray)
Theatrical feature; audio commentary with special effects team of Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger, Everett Burrell and Mike Deak; Joe Of The Dead – Acting In A Romero Classic; Travelogue Of The Dead.

Disc Two (DVD)
The Many Days Of The Dead; Behind the Zombies footage; Romero Zombography; Photo Album of the Dead; Souvenirs of the Dead; Night Of The Living Dead trailer; Dawn Of The Dead trailer; TV Ads of the Dead; The Audio Recollections of Richard Liberty; Wampum Mine promo.


Will Errickson said…
Excellent piece. DAY is the one of the original trilogy that really blew me away back in the day and continues to do so. So grim, so relentless. But I'm always behind on these damn DVD upgrades! I just picked up the old 2-disc set used for $6.
Lysergic Earwax said…
I can still remember the very first time I seen this film, around 1989, watching it with my mate and his mum! Blew my mind, and still does. I have the original UK cinema poster waiting to be framed up...
One of the better horror films of the 1980's simply because it wasnt a tired retread of the type of franchise horror that dominated the decade. I'm not a big fan of Romero's Dead series, but I have to credit him with at least trying to do something different with each one. This one would be a definite contender for best of the series, but still a long way short of what I think his is best film "Martin".
Simon said…
Now, if only we could take care of that remake.
Great review, James. A total classic, to be sure.
Can you believe I have this one on VHS? Haven't upgraded it yet to DVD.

And I may have to steal that one image from you for my Sunday Bloody Sunday post someday! I'd forgotten how truly gory this was.
James Gracey said…
Will - Absolute bargain for that 2-disc set! Nice one, dude.

Lysergic - Wonderful memory of the first time you watched this film! Watching horror movies with mums is ace.

Shaun - I think this might be my favourite of the Dead films. It's the one I've watched most, that's for sure. Have only seen Martin once, and that was years ago, but I do remember liking it. Must try and check it out again soon.

Simon - Alas, I have not see the remake... I just don't have the will power to put myself through that... Yet. ;o)

Chris - Steal away! I had forgotten how wet and gory this was too. Nothing like entrails on a Friday afternoon, eh?
Juz said…
A classic. Loved it.
Franco Macabro said…
Romero fans are always devided, you either think Dawn is the best or Day is the best.

Romero says "there are those who think Dawn of the Dead is the best of my movies, but then there are the real ghouls who love Day" Count me in as one of those. Day of the Dead IS the Gone with the Wind of zombie movies, its got so many of them!

And its easily the goriest of all. Even gorier then Land and Dawn.

I liked how you pointed out the isolation felt in that location, it really added to the atmosphere of the film.

Great review like always!
Mykal said…
James: I just received your book on Argento yesterday from Amazon. I've read the first 20 pages or so. Beautiful work, my friend. Well worth the wait.

Congratulations on its publication. Well done!
I was surprised to hear that there were genre fans out there that didnt like this film, though it doesnt compare to DAWN, DAY is an excellent bookend to the original trilogy and a smart Horror film. Excellent review as always, James!
Unknown said…
I am a 7th grade teacher in NC and came across your site while researching some information about the Day of the Dead for my history class this year. I just wanted to thank you for the great information and articles about the Holiday.

We would love it if you could write a few articles for us, but I understand if your busy so a link to some of the current articles would be very helpful as well to help us spread trusted resources to other teachers. I have included a link to the site in case you would like to help us out by linking to it, Tweeting it, or adding it to your Facebook profile.

Thanks and keep the great resources coming

Bre Matthews
James Gracey said…
No problem Bre, though this article isn't actually about the holiday Day of the Dead - it is a review of a zombie movie from the Eighties called Day of the Dead! :o)
Will Errickson said…
Oh, write the articles anyway! I demand more hilarious confusion between the two.

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