Day of the Dead (1985)

Synopsis: In this third and final shocker in the legendary trilogy from writer/director George A. Romero (DAWN OF THE DEAD, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD), a small group of scientists and soldiers have taken refuge in an underground missile silo where they struggle to control the flesh-eating horror that walks the earth above. But will the final battle for the future of the human race be fought among the living or have they forever unleashed the hunger of the dead? Lori Cardille, Joe Pilato, Richard Liberty and Howard Sherman star in this controversial classic with groundbreaking gore effects by Tom Savini and featuring the most intense zombie carnage ever filmed.

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Day of the Dead (1985) 7.0

eyelights: its social commentary. its stunning gore effects. its zombie make-up.
eyesores: its performances. its slowness. its hopelessness.

“They’re learning.”

‘Day of the Dead’ is George Romero’s 1985 follow-up to ‘Dawn of the Dead‘ and the final entry in his original ‘Night of the Living Dead‘ trilogy. It takes us back into that world from an even more isolated perspective than ever before: inside an underground government compound, disconnected from humanity.

There appears to be no one out there.

In fact, by one character’s count the undead now outnumber humans 400,000 to 1.

400,000 to 1.

Let that sink in for a moment.

There simply aren’t enough bullets for all of them, so the dozen soldiers and scientists that are trapped in that facility struggle to find a solution to the problem. Unfortunately, as they suffer casualties, tensions build, breaking them apart. Soon they have to survive not just the zombies but each other.

Frankly, I felt let down by ‘Day of the Dead’ when I first saw it; my expectations were so high after ‘Dawn of the Dead’ that it couldn’t hold up. And, even with lowered expectations, the second viewing was grueling. While ‘Night’ is a pulse-pounder and ‘Dawn’ is intellectually meaty, this one isn’t either, really.

It feels comparatively flat.

Part of the problem is that Romero had to gut his original script, which he had conceived as an epic, because he couldn’t get the financing. So what originally started as a 200-page opus eventually ended up as an 88-page interpretation; many of the characters were jettisoned and the set pieces were reduced to a few.

Now, aside for the very brief bookends, the whole picture takes place in the underground compound, which was filmed in a Pensylvania mine shaft. There we find bland quarters, a board room, a research facility, a makeshift trailer, and a zombie pit (from where the scientists cull their subjects). It’s fairly limited.

‘Day’ still cost a lot more than the previous two combined, and looks it, but it was half of what was initially needed. One could argue that this is the reason why most of the action is relegated to one location, but it was also the case for the two previous films – and they worked, not in spite of but because of it.

A major issue is the tone of the piece: while the previous two afforded their audiences a degree of hope, there’s a misanthropic quality here that bears down heavily. In ‘Day’, Romero takes no sides: the scientists are as ethically-challenged as the military men and as the passive pilots – but in different ways.

It’s hard to know what happened in Romero’s life since ‘Dawn’, which came out seven years prior, but here he appears to suddenly believe that humanity may not deserve to survive. It’s a view that he’d espoused through one of the talking heads in ‘Dawn’, but in ‘Day’ it seems to have become his overarching message.

Grim.

If anything, though, the main problem here are the performances.

With this cast, even the more likeable characters fall a bit flat here. The best of them all is Lori Cardille as Sarah, one of the doctors; she’s decent and is reminiscent of Carrie Fisher in some ways. Though she’s no Princess Leia, she’s certainly kick @$$ compared to her closest comrades, who are apathetic pilots.

The villains are the worst. They’re all shouty, unable to deliver any subtlety if their lives depended on it. I still remember how appalled I was the first time I saw Joseph Pilato stink up the screen as the main antagonist; every moment was torture. Anthony Dileo Jr. was no better as Miguel, Sarah’s PTSD-ed boyfriend.

On the flip-side, the zombie make-up is better than ever in ‘Day’. Tom Savini’s work is not just more ambitious but well-realized, creating some really crazy gore effects, like guys being pulled apart while still screaming. Still, there are weak ones too, like boneless fingers being bitten off, but they’re the exception.

Sadly, the bulk of the zombie action that we get is in the form of Bub, the lead research subject. A former military man, he’s being taught simple skills by Dr. Logan, who’s discovered that the zombies are adapting; he believes that, since you can’t eradicate them all, the best way forward is to teach zombies to be civil.

So we see a lot of Bub, who’s a rubbery-faced, balding guy. I still remember how annoyed I was with his presence initially; he’s just a dumb beast, chained at the neck, doing simple things. Now I appreciate what Romero was saying, though I think Logan’s logic was flawed: it takes more resources to train than to destroy.

Beyond that, there are a couple of pit fights and the finale, but that’s about it for the zombies.

So, between its limited scope, its performances, its minimal zombie action and its dismal tone, ‘Day of the Dead’ didn’t do much for me. Still, I appreciate it more now: this was Romero’s indictment of the military and of scientific research, which can both strip us of our humanity when taken to certain extremes.

Despite its shortcomings, the picture further explores ideas that were established in his previous zombie films, such as the building blocks of civil society, racial and gender equality, fear versus logic, …etc. Counterbalanced by its grotesque feasts, it’s an excellent mixture of cerebral and visceral delights.

It may have been a weak closer to such a potent trilogy, but it remains a better zombie picture than most.

And Romero would eventually return to the genre with another trilogy.

Nota bene: ‘Day of the Dead’ inspired a loose remake in 2008. It was widely panned, but it has its redeeming values.

Story: 7.5
Acting: 7.0
Production: 7.5

Chills: 3.0
Violence: 3.0
Gore: 8.5

Date of viewing: October 7, 2017

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