The living dead now outnumber the living by 400 000 to 1 and what remains of humanity appears to be in a vast underground bunker where Dr. Logan is being allowed to carry out experiments on zombies to try to understand them. However there is increasing friction between Logan and his friends, and Capt. Rhodes and his soldiers, who are sometimes sacrificing their lives in capturing zombies for Logan. When Logan befriends a rather time zombie called Bub, Rhodes becomes tyrannical and is perhaps more dangerous than the army of zombie outside the compound, waiting to get in……
Day Of The Dead was generally regarded as a big disappointment coming only seven years after the great Dawn Of The Dead, although its reputation has increased and Romero himself regards it as his favourite. I was among those initially let down. Instead of the action and sheer fun of Dawn Of The Dead, with likeable characters who race around a shopping mall dispatching zombies with style, here we had a really claustrophobic film, set in a depressing looking bunker setting with mostly whites and greys, with little action until the last half an hour, and with mostly dislikeable characters who bicker and threaten each other. After a second and third viewing I got to liking the movie a lot more and it really does have much to recommend it. It remains quite a drop in quality after Dawn Of The Dead, but if one ignores that movie, it becomes a lot more enjoyable.
Romero originally planned a much more elaborate film than the one that he eventually made, with the military still underground but the scientists living above ground in a fortress and training an army of zombies. When the $7 million dollar budget proved too much unless Romero toned down the gore and got an ‘R’ rating, something he refused to do, the budget was halved and Romero drastically scaled down the film, returning it to something closer to Night Of The Living Dead than the second movie, and perhaps not really moving things on much. Some of the unused ideas would later though make it into the very long awaited fourth instalment, Land Of The Dead. With even many horror fans not finding much to like about the film [at first], Day Of The Dead was a commercial failure on release. Surprisingly in the UK the BBFC only cut around half a minute from the film, a small amount considering the shocking amount of graphic gore in the film and the fact that Dawn Of The Dead lost over three minutes!
I earlier mentioned the word’ enjoyable’, though it’s perhaps misleading. This is one bleak movie, where what seems to remain of humanity just seems to want to tear itself apart. At least the flesh eating zombies are just following their instinct! Although it opens with a great sequence showing zombies shuffling around a city, much of the film does indeed consist of rows between the military and the ‘civilians’, with some almost poetically foul dialogue which would make Quentin Tarantino proud. Despite the verbiage there’s a considerable amount of tension in these scenes and although we automatically side with the civilians because Captain Rhodes and his lot are so dislikeable, especially when they make sexual threats to the one female in the group Sarah, one does actually start to sympathise with the military a bit. After all, they are gradually losing their lives in supporting Dr. Logan’s experiments and its possible Logan’s research will achieve nothing anyway. Who doesn’t feel somewhat disgusted when it turns out Logan has been feeding Bub parts of dead soldiers?
Along the way Romero still remembers to give us periodically some really grim gore, along with some really black humour, such as the body lying on the table with his stomach cut open who sits up and deposits his insides all over the floor! Or there’s the body with everything removed from the head except for the brain! Tom Savini’s effects really reach a peak in gruesomeness, inventiveness and detail, and unlike in Dawn Of The Dead the blood really does look realistic this time, so what when people have chunks bitten off them it really looks nasty! The zombies look rather different too, they’re generally far more detailed and ‘inhuman’ looking, as if the ‘race’ of zombies is more fully developed now [maybe they are the grown children of zombies?], and with more of an Italian horror movie look to them. The tension builds to a peak and we are treated to a truly unpleasant arm lopping, then the action proper starts as the zombies are let into the bunker. There’s a fantastic sequence set in some underground caves where some of the characters battle zombies, with the dead popping out all over the place and being dispatched in somewhat amusing ways; this is great fun and is probably the only time when Day Of The Dead has some of the feel of its immediate predecessor. And then we have the incredibly gory climactic cannibalism, which takes zombie gore about as far as it can go, along with more extremely black humour, with one guy crying “choke on them” as he’s ripped in two.
It’s interesting that, considering the film’s overall tone, which is actually closer to Night Of The Living Dead than Dawn Of The Dead, this one ends on a more positive note. SPOILERS The first movie ended with everyone dying and the hero’s being shot. The second movie ended with two survivors escaping in a helicopter into the sky but with no reassurances that they might actually be safe. This one ends with three survivors, on a tropical island somewhere, and for the time being they do actually look safe, albeit with nothing much to do SPOILERS END. With a bigger central cast than Dawn Of The Dead, the acting is more erratic, but sometimes very good indeed, with Lori Cardille the most likeable female lead so far [in fact Romero compensates for his first two movies by having the woman be the most sensible and ‘with it’ person in this one] and Joseph Pilato a splendidly nasty Capt. Rhodes. Richard Liberty really does well with a typical mad scientist role and Howard Sherman is memorable as Bub, the first sympathetic zombie of the series.
The score, mostly from John Harrison, while serviceable, is rather too light for the film and has a main theme rather too similar to that in Dawn Of The Dead. Overall Day Of The Dead is very well made, but even if you like explicit gore it’s somewhat of a hard film to like. It also doesn’t really have any major new ideas to add to the previous two movies aside from that of the character of Bub, who shows how zombies can become more ‘human’. In scaling down his picture, I don’t think Romero kept enough originality in it to compensate. I also didn’t see much social comment in this one, apart from the really obvious stuff about the military and scientists having differing ways of how to solve a problem. I’ve heard that this movie is partially about aids, but I just don’t see that at all! On its own though it’s still a memorably nihilistic, extremely tough horror movie that is very compelling, especially on successive viewings, in spite of itself. The 2008 remake, by the way, isn’t really a remake at all and is best forgotten!