Day of the Dead (1985)
I have always been amazed at how time changes the perception of a film. Day of the Dead is the perfect example. George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead, the 1978 sequel to The Night of the Living Dead, set a new standard in horror films. Night had already somewhat done that, relying less on traditional horror tropes and more on concentrating on the actions of the survivors and how they affected the outcome, plus pushing the violent content as far as he could. Dawn dispensed with traditional scares all together, presenting the rise of the zombies as a worldwide apocalypse. Since it was made independently Romero never bothered to try to submit it for a rating, but released it to theaters as it was.
The movie was, and still is, one of the best horror films ever made. There was really no expectation for him to try and top it, and indeed he went on to work on different projects that had nothing to do with his zombies, even working within the Hollywood system for the anthology movie Creepshow. Still, it was a welcome return in 1985 when Day of the Dead appeared, and, once again knowing the level of violence would get the movie an X rating despite the lack of any strong sexual content, he didn't bother. It was Romero, both Night and Dead, along with Creepshow, had made a fair amount of money, so mainstream theaters didn't balk at running an unrated film from him. They just wouldn't let anyone under 18 in.
Still, if the critics were to be believed - I was only 13, there was no internet, and I didn't know a whole lot of people who liked movies like this at the time to get a real opinion - Romero laid a giant egg with Day of the Dead. I did, of course, see it before I turned 18, because of the magic of VHS and my parents not worried about me seeing gory films. I liked it from the first time I saw it, but to non-horror fans the criticism was that it was a bunch of people sitting around in a bunker talking, as if nothing with Bub (Sherman Howard) or the great Tom Savini effects throughout ever happened. People like Roger Ebert, who in retrospect was one of the least qualified critics to review horror movies, acted like he should have just remade Night or Dawn instead of pushing the story forward. In the end it was always clear that Romero sided with his shambling hordes more than he did with many of his human characters, but that seemed lost on many of them. Happily, as the years went by, both fans and critics realized that, although some of the satire is downplayed this time around, this is very much the equivalent of what came before it.
At an unspecified period after the beginning of the zombie apocalypse a group of scientists, guarded and aided by a military division, occupy an underground bunker in Florida. Logan (Richard Liberty), the head scientist, is also known as "Frankenstein" due to the experiments he is doing with the walkers that are captured. He is trying to find a way of domesticating the creatures, while Sarah (Lori Cardille) is still working on a way to reverse the process, or at least find a cure for the virus they pass in their bites. Meanwhile, Rhodes (John Pilato) has just taken over leadership of the military portion of the operation due to the death of the previous officer in charge.
While it is hinted that tensions were high before, Rhodes is demanding to see results before he risks any more of his men gathering walkers for Logan. He also begins to encourage the more thuggish behavior of those under his command, making it clear that he is willing to use violence to get his way. The progress so far is that Logan has been able to partially domesticate a zombie named Bub, who has been able to recognize various aspects of its past and even regain self-awareness to a certain extent. However, Logan has a secret of his own that he has been keeping, and which acts as a tripwire to end the already unsteady truce between the scientists and the military.
There have been rumors that Romero's widow has a copy of Twilight of the Dead ready to go if the funding and right director can be found. At first he had intended to close out the story with this movie, but the budget to do everything he intended was just not there. Many of his ideas have been worked into The Living Dead, a novel that was completed posthumously from his first drafts and outlines, and of course Land of the Dead further moved toward a sort of conclusion before he did the two prequels prior to passing away. I have yet to read the book, and it is unknown if Twilight will ever get made, but Day of the Dead still accomplished quite a bit despite its constraints.
Although the blue skin coloring looks more like blue makeup the more the picture quality is enhanced, the majority of Tom Savini's effects still work. There is a disturbing, ultra-realistic (except for it being ripped off instead of chopped off) beheading where the character has a rising scream until the head is removed, something I'm sure is another one of those experiences Savini brought back from Vietnam that resulted in many of his effects being so disturbing. The most memorable scenes are of people being literally torn apart, and these have been duplicated in many zombie movies afterward.
The human cast is great as well. Sure, there isn't a lot of dimension to the characters - Romero purposely wanted Bub and other zombies to have more personality - but Richard Liberty is memorable as the mad scientist and John Pilato, who played a cop in Dawn of the Dead, is excellent as Rhodes. Lori Cardille plays a capable and intelligent female lead, while Terry Alexander and Jarlath Conroy play the only other two that could be considered good guys in this. I think part of what was disconcerting for a number of viewers is that there is no buildup to meeting or knowing these characters in order to see them at their best, as by the time we are introduced they are already pretty much insane from isolation and stress.
Except for a scene on the streets of Fort Myers and a brief coda afterward the majority of the film takes place in the underground bunker, making sure that the audience gets to experience the same claustrophobia that is slowly driving the characters insane. An abandoned mine used for storage of vital documents and other material just outside of Pittsburgh, the cast and crew was in fact often isolated while filming, adding some additional realism.
Although I still like Dawn of the Dead slightly better, largely due to the biker attack on the mall, Day is undoubtedly the equal or maybe even a bit better than Night. With its limited, and dwindling, number of survivors cut off from all contact and seemingly no one left in a state of what could be deemed alive, this movie may not have been able to bring the story to a close at the time but certainly felt like this was the end of everything, with the world abandoned to the dead. As much as I like Land of the Dead, even if it is lesser than the first three movies, Day of the Dead would still have been a fitting and satisfying end to the series if Romero had never decided to revisit this world he created.
Day of the Dead (1985)
Time: 101 minutes
Starring: Lori Cardille, Terry Alexander, John Pilato, Richard Liberty, Sherman Howard
Director: George A. Romero