Day of the Dead wasn’t exactly the film that George A. Romero set out to make. Thanks to studio demands and a budget cut from $7 million to $3.5, his original, more ambitious, treatment had to be pared down into the smaller story that we know today. But necessity has ever been the mother of invention, and ultimately it’s what he did with these reduced resources that counts.
There’s been much jibber-jabber in the years since about how Day is somehow a travesty of this first script. Who knows? It could have been one of the greatest zombie movies ever made. It could also have been a sprawling mess. We can ‘could have’ and ‘should have’ until we’re all blue in the face, but it doesn’t change the simple fact that the Day of the Dead that was made is a great film. An excellent film. And it already is one of the best zombie movies ever made. Maybe even the best.
A few years on from the zombie apocalypse of Dawn of the Dead we find tensions running high in an underground research facility occupied by a handful of survivors. A small clutch of soldiers led by the monstrous Rhodes (Joe Pilato) barely tolerates the presence of the even smaller group of scientists that they were originally assigned to protect. Before long, this pressure cooker is ready to explode, and when Rhodes learns that chief egghead Dr Logan (Richard Liberty) has been using his fallen men as research subjects all bets are off and this tentative safe haven is about to be blown wide open to the undead hordes clawing at the gates outside.
Lori Cardille is great in the role of Lori, the scientist through whose eyes we see the story, but it’s the manic performances from Pilato and Liberty that steal the film. Overacting slightly? Maybe, but you just can’t just tear your eyes from them. However, even more memorable to most viewers, of course, is Logan’s ‘pet zombie’, Bub, as played by Sherman Howard.
Not only did zombie mythology gain a new angle from the concept of a zombie that could learn, but we also get to see perhaps one of the most satisfying payback scenes in movie history. I won’t spoil it in case you’ve yet to catch up with the film, but instead simply leave you with the words “Choke on ’em!” Look out also for John Amplas, who so memorably essayed the role of Martin in Romero’s 1977 film, and FX legend and Walking Dead producer/director Greg Nicotero.
The other ‘star’ of Day is of course Tom Savini. His make up and gore effects really are second to none here. They represent a quantum leap from those used in Dawn and, despite developments in technology, have never been bettered. And, oh yes, there is much gore in the film. Much, much gore, but all in the service of an intelligent, articulate plot, and never to the extent that it gets boring.
It’s almost hard to believe today that many fans were disappointed with Day at the time; it wasn’t a repeat of Dawn, it wasn’t exactly the film Romero set out to make, it’s too dark, too bleak, too small. One imagines that much of this was because back in ’85 its place in the trilogy suggested that this was to be the final Romero zombie opus.
Now it’s stood the test of time to become a classic in its own right, every bit as good as Dawn. By the time 2005’s Land of the Dead rolled into town, Dawn and Day were held up as the standards that needed to be met. Land failed to reach these in many fans’ eyes, but what will everyone think twenty years from now? We’ll see. But Day of the Dead stands today as a grim dystopian science fiction/horror masterpiece and, perhaps, the perfect zombie movie. So there.
Rob’s blog: Cult & World Cinema Connection