Day of the Dead is often seen as the black sheep of George A. Romero’s original zombie trilogy. It departs from the classic siege-style structure of Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, and is less about immediate survival than it is about long-term consequences. Also, while you could argue that any given zombie film isn’t really about the zombies, it’s about the survivors, that is never more true than it is with Day of the Dead. These elements make for a film that breaks from the form Romero established and as such may not be as accessible as the previous films to the casual zombie-flick fan.
For fans and the hardcore however, Day of the Dead may be the best of the bunch. Romero has gone on record that it is his favorite of the three and though it was originally spec’d for a much larger budget and wider scope, he delivers a film that still manages to provide a global perspective even while focused in tight on a small group of specific survivors. There is a sense of a larger world, a military and scientific response to the zombie threat and a timeline advanced much further into the epidemic. Removing the imminent threat of death-by-zombie, Romero is free to explore and to take us further into the dark corners of the human experience than we have ever been before.
He also takes this opportunity to tweak the film’s social commentary to fit the era: If Night of the Living Dead was a 60’s allegory for civil rights and Dawn of the Dead was 70’s commentary on consumerism and class, then Day of the Dead explores the 80’s breakdown of trust in the government and the failure of interpersonal communication in the “me” generation. Watching it today, it’s also eerie to note how the discussion of military power vs. the need for scientific research plays out, a harbinger of current political trends. But lest we get hung up on all this high-minded subtext, let’s not forget that this is first and foremost a zombie horror flick and one of the most gruesome of its era.
Day of the Dead is the self-professed pinnacle of Tom Savini’s effects career and is packed front-to-back with rich bloody gore. Perhaps Savini was responding to the Italians who had significantly upped the ante since Dawn’s premiere or maybe we’re simply seeing a genius at work in his prime, surrounded by talent like Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger and John Vulich (all of whom would go on to found or co-found their own effects companies) squeezing the absolute most out of a tiny budget. Whatever drove the man to create, the work is inspired and it fed fans eager for more gore exactly what they wanted. Savini won a Saturn award for makeup effects and his work on Day of the Dead cemented his status as a legend in the hearts of gore-hounds worldwide.
The film is much more deliberately paced than previous iterations, so Romero made sure to punctuate it with enough gross-out scenes to keep things sufficiently terrifying. We are introduced to Dr. Matthew “Frankenstein” Logan (Richard Liberty), whose laboratory is a veritable closet of horrors. A scene featuring a zombie rising from it’s gurney only to have its guts spill out sloppily onto the floor follow another of a corpse with it’s head removed and only the brain-stem intact moving about on a stretcher. We’re also introduced to “Bub” (Sherman Howard), a zombie held in captivity by the researchers that Frankenstein is attempting to domesticate.
When we aren’t being treated to such bloody disgusting bon mots, we experience a different kind of tension — that between the survivors at the subterranean base camp. There are two clear factions: the scientists and the military, and as the film opens we learn that the previous military head has been killed, leaving Captain Steven Rhodes (Joseph Pilato) in charge. He’s a ruthless pragmatist with a Napoleon complex who can’t justify the “research” taking place, putting him at direct odds with Dr. Sarah Bowman (Lori Cardille) who openly questions his authority. As mishaps in handling the zombie test-subjects result in the death of some of the military staff, tensions escalates further as Dr. Bowman’s love interest, Pvt. Miguel Salazar (Anthony Dileo Jr.), begins to rapidly lose his grasp on reality.
This PTSD-esque phenomenon is one of the film’s more interesting angles, we see it illustrated in the dreams and hallucinations of Dr. Bowman and in the actions of Miguel, but it is reflected in some way in nearly all of the characters. Only helicopter pilots Bill (Jarlath Conroy) and John (Terry Alexander) seem to have the secret to staying cool, and as things begin to disintegrate, they are there to help Dr. Bowman make her escape. By this point, the whole situation has become entirely unhinged, and as we catapult towards the end of the film things become darker at every turn.
Though things end on a bright note, questions linger. Romero’s decision to establish a zombie capable of thought and emotion is a controversial one, and though he later explores this further in Land of the Dead, the genesis of the idea is here. It’s a brilliant concept that turns the very idea of the zombie on its head, evolving it in a way that is more terrifying than even the recent trend in fast-moving zombies. It’s a nightmare world hinted at, where we see the curtain drawn back on utter human desperation. If the enemy is not as mindless as once thought, where can we ever be safe?
Commentary with writer/director George A. Romero, Special Make-up Effects artist Tom Savini, Production Designer Cletus Anderson and actress Lori Cardille – This is one of the elements that will make the Shout!/Scream! Factory release a must-have even for those who have picked up previous versions on DVD or Blu-Ray. It’s an absolute treat to have all of these folks together reminiscing and commenting upon the film and there is never a lull. Romero comments that one of th
e things that made this his favorite Dead movie was the camaraderie on-set, and that clearly lingers even today as they discuss the film and their memories of the shoot.
Commentary with filmmaker Roger Avary – you may know Avary from his films Killing Zoe or The Rules of Attraction, or as a writer on Pulp Fiction, and as such you’d probably expect his commentary to be a lot better than it turns out to be. Self-indulgent and far from studious, it comes off a bit like they grabbed the first guy who said “Yeah, I kinda like that film” and handed him the mic. Granted, it comes off much more like a barroom discussion with a friend than a film commentary track, and maybe that’s what they were going for, but there’s no excuse for continually referring to Terry Alexander’s character as “the black guy with the accent.” Even simply having a cast list on-hand could have solved that issue.
Documentary – World’s End: The Legacy of Day of the Dead – Another huge selling point for fans concerned about double-dipping should they already own the film, this feature-length (almost an hour-and-a-half!) doc includes interview snippets with the majority of the cast and crew and provides a brilliant synopsis of the film’s production as well as it’s reception at the time of release.
Featurette: Underground: A Look into the Day of the Dead Mines – this brief piece discusses the principal location for most of the film and how they appear in the modern day, including snippets of interviews with the current facility manager who worked on-site back in the day.
Wampum Mine Promotional Video – one of the more curious bits I’ve encountered as a DVD/Blu-Ray extra, this is a commercially produced video advertising the mine as a storage facility. It’s all very corporate and rife with bad muzak soundtrack, but it is interesting to see how it looks under bright fluorescents, particularly after having just watched the film.
Behind-The-Scenes Footage from Special Make-up Effects Creator Tom Savini’s archives – as with The Burning special edition, we get home video footage of nearly all of the major effects courtesy of Savini. There’s a lot here and effects-fans will appreciate the deep-dive into how exactly they pulled some of this stuff off.
Still Galleries – rather extensive this time out, including photos and scans of all the previous releases of Day, from VHS to DVD to even the more recent Anchor Bay Blu-Ray packaging.
As with most of the recent Shout!/Scream! Factory reissues, this release includes brilliant new cover artwork presented on the slip as well as a reversible cover for the case, with the back featuring a reworking of the original home video cover art. Courtesy here of Nathan Thomas Milliner, the new artwork is stunning and will surely be enticing to fans and completists as well as even the casual viewer.
At some point in the future he will likely appear on one of those shows that details how a person's addiction to purchasing and consuming media has ruined their life. Until then, his obsessions include sci-fi, horror and cartoons.
He can be found tweeting acerbically at @GentlemanSin.