Day of the Dead is the third film in George A. Romero’s series of zombie movies, and the least liked of the original trilogy. It’s often compared to Dawn, accused of suffering from little-to-no sense of humor and bad acting. And this is understandable. Gone is the flashy, vibrant aesthetic and wittily satirical tone of the second film, having been replaced with something far bleaker. The world as we know it has finally come to a brutal end, and some of the last surviving scientists and military personnel are driven into a claustrophobic underground shelter where they desperately strategise and conspire for survival. Humanity is doomed, but what is most interesting about this film is its declaration that the zombies are not the only ones destroying life.
If Dawn of the Dead slyly attacked society through satire, then Day distances itself from metaphor and attacks living, breathing humans outright. By showing certain characters to be truly corrupt and self-destructive, Romero explores human nature more ferociously than before, and this results in a plodding nihilism which some viewers find tiring. The main source of malevolence is Captain Steven Rhodes, played by Jospeh Pilato, who, along with his fellow soldiers, grows increasingly impatient at the scientists’ lack of progress in discovering any reason or cure for the outbreak. He is especially bitter towards Dr. Sarah Bowman (Lori Cardille) and his anger culminates in a violence and villainy that threatens the survival of everyone, including himself. The group splits down the middle, and selfish bickering is what ultimately hinders progression.
What saves the film from becoming too despondent is its treatment of Dr. “Frankenstein” Logan (Richard Liberty) and his test subject Bub. Logan is the head scientist at the base who spends most of his time locked away in his laboratory, hacking at zombie limbs and brains, trying to make sense of their insatiable desire to feed. One zombie in particular reacts positively to his harebrained tests and shows signs of human understanding, mimicking everyday activities such as shaving and reading. If the hoard of the living-dead gathering at the mall in Dawn was a vague suggestion that some part of human memory is retained within the zombie brain, then Bub is both a concentration and development of this idea, an idea which was to be evolved even further in Land of the Dead, and again in Survival. If the zombies can learn and adapt, then there is hope after all. It’s interesting to note that Romero’s original script for Day was much longer, and encompassed many of the ideas that were eventually realised in Land. The two films are very similar; both are set within territories cut off from the ‘outside’ by fences, both involve tyrants, and both have zombies displaying a peculiar level of intelligence. However, what sets Bub apart from the zombies in the later films is undoubtedly Sherman Howard’s brilliant performance, which somehow makes room for both empathy and horror. It’s exciting to watch Bub develop loyalty and compassion, whilst Tom Savini’s makeup keeps him looking decidedly icy.
Day of the Dead‘s scenes of zombie capture, imprisonment and torture are proof that it’s just as miserable to be a zombie in this world as it is to be a human. With each shriek and cry that suggests real torment and confusion, Romero lends his monsters a capacity for feeling, however juvenile, that removes them somewhat from the terrifying ghouls of Night of the Living Dead. The audience is left feeling cold as they realise that to live and progress means having to sometimes act immorally (this theme is most evident in Survival). And yet it is up to those with the strongest of moral consciences to stand against those who are foolish and selfish. Harry Cooper‘s character was a forewarning of the harmful effects of narrow-mindedness, and Rhodes is proof that such narrow-mindedness is here to stay. In the end, Day of the Dead leaves us with many ethical questions that are frustratingly unanswerable.
For a film that takes itself so seriously, there are still moments of light relief, provided mostly by helicopter pilots John (Joseph Pilato) and McDermott (Jarlath Conroy). The two help out when they can but mostly keep their distance from the drama, and John’s laid back attitude in particular nicely offsets Sarah’s headache-inducing severity. Camping away from the cramped conditions of the base, they are the antithesis to the doctors who insist on staying put in the name of progress. John, at one point, says to Sarah: “Let’s get in that old whirly-bird, find us an island some place, get juiced up and spend what time we got left soakin’ up some sunshine! How’s that?” His plan is to keep moving rather than to sit still. And in the end, the characters must move to keep alive, as all characters in Romero’s films must ultimately do, journeying off into the sunset in helicopters, armored vehicles or boats. For to sit still in this world of the dead, is to be dead.
FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★