After last years fantastic run of my fan favorite Savage South series, I’ve decided I’m going to have another Summer time focus on southern horror. I’m playing a bit fast and loose with this first entry in the series, however, it does take place in Florida. Day of the Dead is the final entry in the original Romero zombie trilogy and was of course proceeded by Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead.
Day of the Dead begins some years into the zombie apocalypse. Society has fallen. A group of government employees are stationed in an underground bunker while searching for a cure and are split into three factions. On one side is the army who are in charge of protecting the facility and procuring zombie specimens. On the other are the scientists themselves, and in between are a couple of apathetic helicopter pilots who have to chauffeur the other two factions around. The army men are becoming more resentful toward the scientists as it’s their lives are put on the line for a problem that would be easily remedied by bullets to the head. The lead scientist, Dr. Logan, counterpoints that this is impossible because the number of the zombie horde greatly outnumbers the amount of bullets they may have. Tensions escalate until the army declares martial law on everyone in the underground bunker and a bloody battle for survival breaks out!
One of the things I love about this film is the pathology and ethics of the characters. Though each group has their own set of core values, each member still has their own personalities that helps escalate the tension. As the film focuses primarily on scientist Sarah (Lori Cardille), we see through her eyes the growing horror of what head scientist Dr. Logan (the late Richard Liberty) is doing with his gruesome experiments. Logan has been dubbed “Dr. Frankenstein” from the grunts for a very good reason. However, he has also managed to somewhat domesticate a zombie he’s nicknamed Bub (Sherman Howard). While looking for a cure for the plague is important, the work they are doing is impractical and would require a lot of time they don’t have considering the number of the undead. This same problem haunts the army who know they can’t shoot them all (even though this idea is the most practical).
In the world of Day of the Dead, the army men are the bad guys. Led by the domineering Rhodes (Joe Pilato), the group bullies their way around the other charcters and demand answers the scientists don’t have. However, their villainry is more open to interpretation that what I believe Romero intended. From their point of view, they are absolutely right to be upset. They are the ones putting their life on the line to babysit the scientists and obtain the zombies for their experiments. Given the scientists lack of progress, they have every right to take issue with them.
And then there are the helicopter pilots: McDermott (Jarlath Conroy) and John (Terry Alexander). They live in a trailer they’ve decorated up with an island theme and have isolated themselves away from the ongoing conflict. McDermott spends his time sipping whiskey, and Terry waxes philosophical about what the zombie outbreak means for humanity and how to deal with it. In his view, the best way is to deal with the zombie outbreak is not trying to restore society, but work on starting a new one. Given the circumstances, they are the ones who make the most sense, and are ultimately proven right.
Most of the tropes found in Day of the Dead have since gone on to find their way into just about every zombie novel and movie imaginable. There has also been a sequel and remake of which we will not speak. On a more positive note, the legendary KNB FX formed onset during this time period (Greg Nicotero stars one of the soldiers). The finale of Day of the Dead features some of the best gore work ever committed to film, while also being a masterclass on how a thirty year old film’s practical effects are light years better than the lazy CGI work horror films go for these days. KNB has gone on to be in charge of the special effects on the very successful TV show The Walking Dead. KNB even managed to bring the two franchises together by having the friendly fan-favorite zombie Bub make a cameo on an episode TWD.
One of the things that has divided the fan base on Day of the Dead is the soundtrack done by composer John Harrison. I’ll admit the synth score is very eccentric and wouldn’t fit for a normal horror film, but in this case it works. Day of the Dead is just as much of a drama/action film as it is horror. I once heard the soundtrack described as “audio crack”, and I’m not inclined to disagree.
When it comes to the first three Dead films, fandom is split apart on which is the best. My favorite entry usually depends on which one I’m watching at the time. However, I can’t deny that when it comes down to it, Day of the Dead has to be my favorite. This is due to it having the most quotable lines, the best characters, and hands down some of the best effects work of the genre. Romero took almost eight years getting back into the series after Dawn of the Dead and his patience in plotting and planning shows. The cinematography contains quite a few iconic shots that are almost Stanley Kubrick like, and there isn’t a need for three or four edits of the film as there was for Dawn of the Dead. It also marked the end of an era of local Pittsburgh film making. Day of the Dead is the last film that would use locals from the area to volunteer as zombies. It’s easy to see how much of a blast they were having with their costumes during the films’ finale where hundreds of zombies descend on the bunker. Despite these things, Day wasn’t very popular upon it’s release (people were expecting a fun time like Dawn of the Dead, or the other two big zombie movies of that time, Re-Animator and Return of the Living Dead — it didn’t help that Micheal Jackson’s Thriller came out two years prior), Day of the Dead has since both found it’s fan base, and solidified itself by it’s legacy — a legacy that is still going strong as we head into it’s 31st anniversary on July 3rd. Salute!
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