Day of the Dead

US | 1985 | Directed by George A. Romero

Logline: A small group of scientists and military personnel are forced to co-habitat in an underground bunker while zombies are kept at bay above ground. 

“The darkest day of horror the world has ever known.”

Romero’s third installment in the Dead saga is, arguably, the most powerful of the entire six movie series (with a seventh on its way). It is unquestionably one of the most viscerally intense modern horror movies ever made, a stomach-churning indictment on the abject greed and inherent nihilism of the human race. It also set a benchmark for special effects makeup that has rarely been equaled. In short, Day of the Dead is a tenebrous, atmospheric masterpiece. 

Set in Florida several years after the events of Dawn of the Dead, zombies now outnumber humans 400,000 to 1. It is a very grim reality indeed, and only getting worse by the day. In an isolated underground bunker – actually a disused missile silo – a small group of desperate scientists are experimenting neurologically on the undead in a vain effort to domesticate them, or at the very least remove their urge to feed on human flesh.

The weary scientists are being facilitated by the military, a bunch of disgruntled soldiers, who spend their time acting the goat, or parading like cowboys, more intent on harassing the scientists than providing utility. The tension is palpable, the situation increasingly dangerous.

Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty) feels he is close to a breakthrough. His colleagues, including plucky Sarah (Lori Cardille), aren’t so sure. The helicopter pilot Johnny (Terry Alexander) would rather get the fuck outta dodge and find some nice tropical island and make some babies. It’s inevitable the shit will hit the fan … along with much flesh and blood.

There is a tone prevalent in Day of the Dead that is more intently serious than most other supernatural horror movies. It presents the zombie predicament as wholly realistic, an unholy plague upon the earth. Johnny sees it as God getting us back for “getting’ to big for our britches, tryin’ to figure His shit out.” Yeah, that’d be about right, mate.

The acting, considering the cast is made up of all unknowns, is of a much higher calibre than the previous Dead movie, with Lori Cardille’s quiet intensity often overlooked. The overall production is superbly realised, everything from Michael Gornick’s moody cinematography through to John Harrison’s emotive score. But especially notable is Tom Savini’s special effects make-up, truly astonishing stuff. More than thirty years down the track and the prosthetic work is still peerless.

Romero’s original screenplay for Day of the Dead was a far more elaborate final chapter; the soldiers and scientists were segregated above and below ground. The military had managed to train a combat force of zombies, a kind of Green Beret of the undead known as The Red Coats, to pit them against the rest of the zombies in a final ditch attempt to conquer the problem. However the budget for this exceeded what executive producers were willing to spend unless Romero could deliver an R-rated version. If he wanted final cut with all the gore trimmings, he’d have to work with half the budget. So Romero changed the script, and as he’d done with Dawn he released Day unrated.

Dawn of the Dead did good business, but for reasons we’ll never really understand Day of the Dead bombed at the box office. Perhaps the combination of the movie’s lack of any obvious humour, the surly, sullen characters, the pitch-black tone, and the overly realistic graphic violence at the time the movie was released (mid-80s) backfired. Perhaps many Americans thought the movie was a documentary on the Mexican Halloween festival? John Carpenter’s The Thing suffered a similar fate.  

Like Carpenter’s The Thing, Day of the Dead demands repeat viewings, as there are many subtle touches and character nuances to be relished. The dialogue crackles, especially from the malicious Captain Rhodes (Joseph Pilato) and flyboy Johnny. I also like that the book Dr. Logan offers to featured zombie Bub (Sherman Howard), to see if he recognizes what to do with it, is Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, a novel about a town overrun by vampires.

Day of the Dead is often unfairly criticised for being too talky, dull even, but its drama qualities intensifies the nightmarish atmosphere. There are more than enough amazing set pieces, and for those who champion the use of practical effects over CGI this movie is one of the holy trinity.

Without a doubt, Day of the Dead is the ne plus ultra of the zombie genre.