Day of the Dead is a 1985 American horror film written and directed by George A. Romero and the third film in Romero’s Dead Series, being preceded by Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978). Though planned as the final part of the saga, the travails of humankind versus their infected dead continued for a further three films (thus far) and two un-Romero related re-hashes… thus far!
The film stars Joe Pilato, Lois Cardille, Sherman Howard (billed as Howard Sherman) and Richard Liberty. Tom Savini enjoys his finest moments in charge of makeup and effects, whilst Romero alumni John Harrison composed the score.
A helicopter circles Fort Myers, Florida, the four passengers on a recce mission for survivors from the zombie catastrophe introduced in Night of the Living Dead and last seen compromising tenement blocks, TV studios and shopping malls in Dawn of the Dead. It is clear from abandoned buildings, cars and debris that the situation has not improved – of note is a newspaper, The Southern Globe, which flutters into view, briefly informing us that the President is missing, the National Guard are overwhelmed and the C.I.A. have no answer to the crisis – indirectly, we are now aware that the zombie outbreak is not confined to isolated pockets of the American North West.
A Hispanic-American male, Miguel Salazar (Anthony Dileo Jr, Monkey Shines, Two Evil Eyes), an unwilling member of a small group of military personnel, uses a megaphone to try to attract survivors. We are also introduced to Jamaican helicopter pilot, John (Terry Alexander, Werewolf of Washington; The Horror Show), radio operative, Irishman McDermott (Jarlath Conroy) and scientist, Sarah (Lori Cardille, daughter of ‘Chilly; Billy Cardille, host of TV’s Chiller Theater), who is also Miguel’s girlfriend.
The ‘hellos’ only serve to attract the undead who appear from the seemingly abandoned resort. We immediately learn three things; they have decayed significantly since the previous film; they now make a sound (collectively the wailing is genuinely disturbing); there are an awful lot of them.
The helicopter returns to base, a fenced facility where the remaining humans reside underground in a series of bunkers divided into living quarters, science labs and a cavernous area gated off from roaming zombies. They are immediately harangued by the apparent leader of the group, a member of the military called Captain Rhodes (Pilato, Dawn of the Dead, Wishmaster) for their lack of success, their wasting of helicopter fuel and their futility leading to goading the zombies lined up at the fence. We realise that the camp is firmly divided into military versus science, with John and McDermott representing the average civilian, only making their way due to their technical expertise.
The military faction, Rhodes, Steel (Gary Howard Klar) and Rickles (Ralph Marrero, Tales From the Darkside: The Movie) are sweary, obnoxious and intolerant of the slow results of the scientists and their increased use of their slim resources. The scientists, led by Dr ‘Frankenstein’ Logan (Liberty, The Crazies) and aided by Sarah and Fisher (John Amplas, Martin, Dawn of the Dead) are a meeker lot but under huge pressure to find answers, lest they become target practise. Unhelpfully, Miguel has been driven half-mad by the apocalyptic events, singling Sarah out for extra taunting and dividing the two groups even further.
Logan largely works alone and when he presents the fruits of his labours, a semi-domesticated zombie he names Bub (Howard, Freddy’s Nightmares), who has developed the rudimentaries of speech and tool-use and even recalls parts of his past life as a soldier but still remains chained for the safety of the humans, Rhodes is monumentally unimpressed, the ‘advancement’ offering no solution to the reversal of the plague.
Daily tasks include the rounding up of zombies for the scientists to experiment on; a task performed with little more than a lasso on a stick and some tricky wrangling in the dark. When two soldiers are bitten during one such venture, Rhodes declares all experiments should end and existing specimens (including stomach-less zombies, those with only a brain attached to their body and mouthless eyes) be destroyed. Worse is to come as both Sarah and Rhodes are enlightened as to Logan’s extracurricular experiments which have necessitated the flesh of Rhodes’ own men to be used as food. He shoots and kills Rhodes and Fisher, the rest cast out into the zombie-infested caverns, with little in the way of arms.
Meanwhile, Miguel has gone completely insane and staggers to the lift-accessed surface, not only becoming food for the undead but allowing the hoards to swamp the whole base. Amid the chaos, the trio of Sarah, John and McDermott aim to reach the helicopter and bid to fly to safety, whilst the remaining military adopt an ‘every man for himself’ approach, with the benefit of arms but the disadvantage of, well, everything else. As time and places to hide run out, one zombie in particular seems to have a score to settle…
It is no secret that this film little resembles Romero’s original vision for the conclusion of his’ Anubis’ trilogy. The intention was to film a far more overtly political film, the politicians controlling a military which had domesticated zombies into something resembling the slaves working the fields of sugar plantations, though rather than farming they were being trained as a weapon of control. Lower echelons of society lived in a dilapidated, drug-filled annexed ‘stalag’, a set-up which more closely mirrors Land of the Dead, Romero’s somewhat ill-fated attempt to finally film his intended story.
Though impressive in scope, Romero’s screenplay, running at an outlandish 204 pages, had little chance of being green-lit, less so when the studio, United Artists, learned that the film was doomed to receive an ‘X’ certificate due to the amount of gore and violence. In 1985, such a certificate was usually reserved for adult movies and severely limited the commercial opportunities of a mainstream film, albeit a horror. The projected budget was gauged at around $6.5million, an amount the studio balked at.
This financial hoo-ha may initially seem unfair; the $55million plus performance of Dawn of the Dead at the box office would, you’d think, appease any fears but the underperformance of both Knightriders and Creepshow left investors wary. Horror was currently feasting on simple concepts; the slasher and the dream worlds of Freddy were big business and required far less in terms of location and set-pieces – Romero envisaged a high action, highly moral film, a risk for an audience that was snaffling up cheap jumps and equally cheap thrills.
Romero significantly pared down the script to a little over a hundred pages but this would still have needed in advance of an extra million dollars to film – there was little option but to jettison the idea and retain only elements – a brief flirtation with filming in 3D was perhaps wisely passed over. The eventual, accepted re-write, a scant 88 pages, required the film to have far less in the way of location and action – a significant opening sequence on water and an ending of all-out war went un-filmed, replaced by a now far talkier, claustrophobic film – brief aerial images of the city hinting at the scope, the tense underground sequences filmed at the former limestone Wampum mine in Pennsylvania, again reinforcing Romero’s philosophy that humans were comfortably the equal threat of the chomping dead.
When filming commenced at the end of 1984, it was clear that the environment of the ex-mine (now a storage facility) was going to problematic – it was dark, cold, wet and the damp meant the equipment regularly malfunctioned, as well as leading to the majority of the cast and crew succumbing to illness.
Again, Romero gave budding actors and acquaintances key roles, saving money as well as giving an ‘everyman’ quality to the film – we could attempt to associate with the characters without being taken out of our escapism by the sight of familiar Hollywood actors.
Of note, are Pilato, an excellently-realised glob of vicious bile and anger, Howard who is given a thankless task of making a trained zombie believable and sympathetic, without sinking to cheap laughs and Liberty, a character who, more than any other in Romero’s zombie films, gives way more than most exactly what has happened to lead us to this point. Again, Romero opts for lead roles to be played by a woman and a black actor.
Tom Savini was again allowed free reign to make his ideas flesh (rotting or otherwise), the advancements in techniques and technology allowing for grander gore theatre and an ability to give the zombies even more detailed individuality and hinted-at backstories.
Sarah bemoans Logan’s lack of scientific breakthroughs at one stage, highlighting that he has barely progressed from “proving theories advanced months ago” – coupled with the existence of the newspaper seen in the first scene, it is clear this episode does not take place too much further in the future than Dawn, though accepted wisdom puts the timescale nearer to five years. This certainly explains the far more decayed creatures Savini presents to us. Two other important pieces of information are given to us by Logan; the estimate of the undead outnumbering survivors by around 400,000 to one and his discovery that the eating of flesh does not nutritionally sustain the zombies.
There are significant implications to the latter two statements, both of which suggest that the best course of action actually lies with John and McDermott – rather like the much-maligned Cooper of Night of the Living Dead who suggests hiding in a locked-up cellar and waiting for help to arrive (he is ultimately proved right), against such insurmountable odds, John’s dream of taking the helicopter and spending his life sunbathing on a deserted island (or indeed McDermott’s of drinking to forget) and leaving the carnage to exist in an alternative world are both realistic and appealing.
Neither the military nor science are proved to hold the answer – lack of ammunition and men mean Rhodes is in a hopeless situation, his anger at the scientists’ lack of progress having a certain amount of justification, though this overspills into the murder of two scientists and the ordered execution of Sarah. Pertinently, the ‘wise old head’ of the film, Logan is eventually revealed to be as insane as Miguel, devoid of ideas but happy in his world where he is as much a self-appointed king as Rhodes. Sarah, the lynchpin between the two, has neither the strength nor the tools to either heal Miguel (physically and emotionally), add anything meaningful to Logan other than criticism or commit to aiding the two to escape until the choice is made for her.
These are all extremely human reactions to an outrageous scenario. The desire to fight or explain away the problem is understandable, though clearly impossible. John echoes Peter’s quasi-religious musings from Dawn but takes it a step further – it doesn’t matter how or where, the important factor is that by sticking around they are under “a great big, fourteen mile tombstone”.
Day of the Dead is unremittingly grim (especially compared to the same years Return of the Living Dead), the level of swearing actually being as shocking as the gore, which is quite an achievement, though it’s difficult to believe anyone would logically behave with decorum in such a situation. The confines of the bunker accentuate this to almost unbearable levels, the wider scope of Land of the Dead and its overplayed morals and posturing proving that in this instance, less was actually more.
The film’s score is the work of John Harrison, also known for his scores to Creepshow and Effects, though is probably known to most fans as the zombie who receives a screwdriver to his earhole in Dawn of the Dead. Also featured are Sputzy Sparacino who is the lead singer of Modern Man and Delilah on the tracks “If Tomorrow Comes” and “The World Inside Your Eyes”, the latter closing the movie and causing a certain amount of derision amongst some, the saccharine 80’s soul being ‘unbecoming’ of a horror film.
In fact, the pitching of an distinctly 80’s sound in a film which is Romero’s final successful social commentary, is quite appropriate – put next to his later nasty, poorly played rock music, one of his most desperate latter-career devices, it’s a Godsend. Harrison’s electronic suites are highly underrated, lengthy and complex but used in the film with great care and subtlety. He just gets away with a comedic “gonk” reference. Just…
The ultimate irony is that the film was indeed the poorest in terms of financial return, grossing $30million at the box office and didn’t even have a flag of consolation waved by many a critic at the time; Roger Ebert gave it a lowly 1½ stars, declaring:
“In the earlier films, we really identified with the small cadre of surviving humans. They were seen as positive characters, and we cared about them. This time, the humans are mostly unpleasant, violent, insane or so noble that we can predict with utter certainty that they will survive”.
Such a viewpoint is unnecessarily pompous – moaning that the characters shout and swear a lot, rather supposes he’d expect cosy-cups-of-tea debate; that they overshadow the zombies, misunderstanding the presented view of the survivors as being a greater threat to each other as much as he said ‘he got’ the retrospectively clumsier representation of consumerism in Dawn.
Day of the Dead remains one of the 80’s greatest horror films though stands as a final fanfare for Romero as a director, only 1988’s Monkey Shines offering a glimpse of a filmmaker of huge invention and skill.
Daz Lawrence, MOVIES & MANIA
“Ultimately, Day of the Dead amounts to 80 minutes of yelling, with 15 minute of running and six minutes of limb tearing, not to mention a hasty ending that actress Lois Cardille said received loud boos from the theatrical audience.” Zombiemania: 80 Movies to Die For