Day of the Dead Review & Retrospective (1985)
You’re only as good as your last movie, or so Hollywood says (fortunately for Michael Bay, his movies remain consistently loud and stupid, thus sparing him confusion). Of course, this never seems to apply to those who keep green-lighting loud and stupid films. But I’m not here to talk about them. I’m here to talk about our friend George Romero.
I can say ‘our friend’, because the legendary director has always presented himself as a charming, avuncular person to his fans. I can’t find any instance of his acting like an asshole to members of the public, no matter how many times they ask him the same questions, including, “When’s the next zombie film coming out?” [I can partially confirm Deggsy’s comment here. When I met Romero at the 2010 Texas Frightmare Weekend he was the friendliest, most humble, and genuinely nice guy who loves his fans — AHS]
Poor George. He’s had a love/hate relationship with the revenants. They’ve brought him fame, but his non-zombie films have for the most part gone been neglected, either deservedly (TWO EVIL EYES, THE DARK HALF, KNIGHTRIDERS) or not (THE CRAZIES, MARTIN, MONKEY SHINES). The one big exception was 1982’s CREEPSHOW, a critical and commercial success (and one of the best horror anthologies ever made). But despite this, his work on the seminal NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and the frankly magnificent DAWN OF THE DEAD was what everyone still associated him with, and people still wanted more zombies. I can sympathise with Romero, grateful for the acclaim the Dead brought him, but still wanting to be known and appreciated for more.
Still, when funds of $7 million were promised if he could bring in a third Dead movie, how could he say no?
We open on a woman slumped on the floor of a stark, windowless room, who lifts her head up to see a calendar on the far wall. Slowly she rises, approaches it (all the while showing that there is no door out of the room), reaches out to the rustic picture on the calendar as if hypnotised-
And then reels back as hands burst through the concrete wall to grab her…
She awakens in a helicopter. She is Sarah (Lori Cardille, TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE), a scientist, travelling with her emotionally-ragged soldier boyfriend Miguel (Anthony Dileo Jr, LORENZO’S OIL), pilot John (Terry Alexander, CONSPIRACY THEORY) and radioman Billy McDermott (Jarlath Conroy, TRUE GRIT) to a Florida city, landing and using a bullhorn to call for anyone listening. Billy’s voice carries through the deserted, litter-strewn streets, as a wind-swept newspaper unfurls to display the headline THE DEAD WALK!
The call does not reach anything … living. Instead, the dead respond, rising and shambling towards them, their collective moans heard even over the blades of their helicopter. They depart, returning to their base of operations, an underground complex surrounded by a chain link fence straining against the weight of the dead outside. It was a facility set up at the start of the zombie outbreak, where scientists try to find a cure and the military tries to assist and protect them. But civilisation has fallen around them, and the situation has deteriorated, to say the least. Isolated for months now, supplies dwindling, the soldiers’ numbers are depleting as more are killed trying to round up zombies for experimentation, and the scientists are getting nowhere.
Such is the tension between the groups that the soldiers’ acting leader, the highly-irritated Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato, who had small roles in DAWN OF THE DEAD and KNIGHTRIDERS) [he also had a small part in PULP FICTION — AHS] can turn a simple meeting into a potential gunfight, even against one of his own men, the obnoxious racist Private Steele (Gary Howard Klar, CADILLAC MAN). The tension crosses racial and sexist lines, with John as the only black man in the group and Sarah the only woman.
The scientists, led by Dr. Logan, aka Dr. Frankenstein (Richard Liberty, FLIGHT OF THE NAVIGATOR), do little to alleviate the tension, with Logan seemingly moving away from finding a cure and focusing on domesticating the dead. Among his better pupils is “Bub” (Sherman Howard, LAW AND ORDER), a zombie who, in an astonishing scene, displays knowledge of books, razors, and telephones – and speaks! Not that this progress interests Rhodes, who’s only interested in making the dead stay dead.
Living apart from both groups, both physically and philosophically, is John and Billy, who keep a mobile home in another part of the complex. Going to them for a break, Sarah questions their attitude, and in a telling speech, John makes her rethink her own position, trying to find answers when their world has already fallen, when they should leave it all behind, find an island and have some babies – and teach them not to return to this place.
Matters worsen when Miguel is bit during a zombie roundup, and two other soldiers are indirectly killed because of him. Sarah quickly cuts his arm off above the bite, trying to halt the infection, but Rhodes is still ready to kill him anyway, until John and Billy agree to keep Miguel with them, though the outlook isn’t promising. But when Rhodes discovers that Dr. Logan has been feeding parts of his men to Bub and the other zombies as reward, all hell breaks loose…
DAY OF THE DEAD would go on to be the least critically- and commercially-successful of the original DEAD trilogy – but it would be a mistake to dismiss this movie on this alone. Romero was promised $7 million to make DAY (in comparison, DAWN cost only $500,000 and NIGHT a mere $114,000), and with this Romero planned a true epic, “a GONE WITH THE WIND of zombie movies”. In his initial storyline, the scientists would be living aboveground in a fortress surrounded by an electrical fence, and the military living more safely underground, and there would have been a small army of zombies trained to defeat the “ferals”. It was also planned that an explosion would wipe out most of the undead in the area, and that one of the characters who died earlier would not reanimate, thus offering hope for the survivors that death could still be the end for them.
However, the backers wanted an R-rated movie to guarantee a wider theatre release with consequent box office, a condition Romero would not agree to, so his budget was slashed in half, and he was forced to retool his original script, retaining most of the original characters but keeping nearly all of the story underground. The opening and closing scenes were shot in Fort Myers and Sanibel Island, Florida, but the underground facility was real, a former limestone mine near Pittsburgh converted into a storage facility. This lends a real sense of claustrophobia to the setting (you can even see and hear bats in the background, and I’m assuming Romero didn’t intentionally add them!), and a feeling that the survivors are already in Hell. Most of the zombie extras were Pittsburgh residents who volunteered to help, and those who participated received a dollar, a cap that read ‘I Played a Zombie in Day of the Dead’, and a copy of the THE DEAD WALK! newspaper. Damn, I’m jealous!
Lori Cardille (whose father Billy had a small role in the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD) puts in a strong performance in the lead, as strong and convincing as Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, an intelligent character who never has to become a damsel in distress or resort to her sexuality (in interviews, Cardille said she tried to soften the character, but Romero refused, believing it would weaken her, a good move on his part). Also of note is Richard Liberty as Dr. Logan, a multifaceted, vulnerable scientist, human and too blinkered to recognise the dangers of his actions. Working well opposite him is Sherman Howard as Bub (whose character has become a minor horror icon), and it’s a friendship that both actors express in scenes without words.
The rest give quite good performances, but if I had any quibble, it is with those portraying the soldiers, in particular Joe Pilato as Rhodes, though I lay most of the blame on Romero’s script. He stated in interviews that he wanted to show the inability of both sides to get along with each other in the face of the crisis around them, but the military is primarily shown as ignorant, racist, sexist, obnoxious, mentally disturbed and trigger-happy. Pilato in particular chews the scenery on a number of occasions, not helped by some of Romero’s dialogue.
Still, Rhodes *does* get one of the best death scenes ever filmed… more on that in a moment.
DAY OF THE DEAD might not receive the respect given to its predecessors, but it remains one of the strongest additions to the genre for the decade. Romero’s decision to deliver an unrated film reaps dividends, and Tom Savini delivers the best effects of his career, light years ahead of Romero’s previous movies, and still stronger than much of what we see in today’s CGI-heavy age. The zombie makeup is unparalleled, far beyond the grey paint and oatmeal seen in a hundred lesser movies. And the gore is of equal strength: dissected bodies, spilled guts, dismemberments, gunshots, bites, all delivered simply but effectively by a true master of his art.
This is especially true when Rhodes meets his end, and though I’d hate to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t yet seen it, there comes with it a story that must be told: the blood and entrails used in Rhodes’ death scene were real, pig parts procured from a nearby slaughterhouse the weekend before they were needed. However, during the weekend custodial staff unplugged the refrigerator storing them, so that by the time shooting commenced the following Monday, they were well and truly spoiled, causing most of the people who had to get up close and personal to them physically ill. When you watch Joe Pilato torn in half by the undead, and he squeezes out the immortal, ad-libbed line, “Choke on them!”, imagine those reeking intestines just under his nose.
If you haven’t seen this movie, see it. It remains stronger now than Romero’s later efforts such as LAND, DIARY and SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD. And watch the trailer below for no other reason than it’s so Old School :-)
[I couldn’t agree more with Deggsy in this review!! DAY OF THE DEAD is one of my favourite horror films (and zombie) films made. It’s bleak, dark, depressing, and claustrophobic and simply one of Romero’s best films. If you haven’t seen this one or only saw the remake, shame on you!! Go out and buy this film — AHS]
Director: George Romero
Plot: 5 out of 5 stars
Gore: 10 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 5 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Derek “Deggsy” O’Brien