When 1967’s Night of the Living Dead was followed by Dawn of the Dead in 1978, few could have predicted that the initial effort would reap a profit of $293 million on a $795,000 budget, adjusted for inflation, while the sequel would reap $197 million off a $2 million sum based on the same factors. A follow up seemed natural, especially considering that the latter effort spawned a series of semi-sequels, like Zombie, and inspired scores more, like Hell of the Living Dead, Erotic Nights of the Living Dead, and Nightmare City, and with budget pressures looming, director George A. Romero birthed Day of the Dead.
It must be made clear up front that Romero was not allowed to film his original concept for fear of a ballooning budget and the restraints of delivering a guaranteed R-rating. As such, the ultimate version of Day of the Dead will forever go unseen, though elements would later be carried over to Romero’s much awaited follow-up Land of the Dead.
While the zombie plague continues to eviscerate the planet, a small group of scientists and soldiers has held up in an underground bunker under the aegis of attempting to find a biological way of containing the infection. With supplies running out and hopelessly inadequate equipment, the haven quickly becomes a hell-hole for all involved, particularly when the man in command dies and gives way to the psychopathic Captain Rhodes, who views the operation as his fiefdom and refuses to acknowledge anyone else’s input.
Though ostensibly led by the unstable Dr. Matthew Logan, whom the soldiers malign as ‘Dr. Frankenstein’, the calm center of the scientific effort is provided by Dr. Sarah Bowman, who constantly struggles to keep the scientists from spinning out of control while keeping the soldiers’ machismo in check. Needless to say, she doesn’t get her way.
What follows may well be the most intellectual zombie film ever made; rather than spend the running time blasting away at the hapless and occasionally dangerous undead, much of Day of the Dead is spent exploring the dichotomy of survival. At any given point, many of the characters seek to extend the research for some semblance of order while others bemoan the circumstances and wish to escape. The reasons for doing either are as varied as they are well-represented, and thus Day of the Dead is a rumination on what it means to survive a zombie apocalypse. Heady material indeed.
Sarah may be the best zombie heroin on record; she’s smart, tough, uncompromising, beautiful, and unafraid of the consequences of her actions. She has little difficulty traversing the divide between the scientists and soldiers; even if their affections for her are strictly intellectual on one side and strictly physical on the other, she’s too smart to allow herself to be pigeonholed. True to form, she has no difficulty making hard decisions under duress, callously lopping off one character’s infected limb in an attempt to save him from reanimation.
Unfortunately the environs, as well as the over-developed personalities, force Day of the Dead into a claustrophobic corner of slip-shot character development and unappealing sequences. Aside from Sarah, Frankenstein, and Captain Rhodes, the rest of the characters are too one-note to seem real. John, the philosophizing Jamaican helicopter pilot, and Bill, the alcoholic Irish radio operator, manage to score a few moments of relevance between disappearing into the background. By comparison, the soldiers are essentially horny jocks with itchy-trigger fingers.
However, the soldiers respectably follow the chain of command and never overstep the boundaries of their obvious testosterone-fueled affection for Sarah. An article of which I’m fond states that soldiers abide rigorously by the chain of command and indeed seek out its structure in everyday life, so it’s not entirely surprising to see them follow the leader, even if he is insane. Contrast Rhodes with Dr. Logan, whose obsession with training the undead to be civil, personified by his star pupil Bub, displays the hallmarks of daddy issues married with unexamined barbarism. Bub is the ultimate human grappling with the limitations of his Id and finding a bizarrely succinct level of morality, even if some zombie fans balk at his ability to learn and adopt the use of a firearm. By contrast, Rhodes is appalled at Frankenstein’s antics, owing to a disgust that is rooted in simple human decency. Thus, no character’s actions go unmotivated, which is a true testament to Romero’s ability with presenting complex characters under duress.
Ultimately, it’s hard to see the point of Day of the Dead. Is chasing a cure truly futile? Is training the undead to be civil show that they are, indeed, a more basic and innocent iteration of man? Is divorcing one’s self from the trappings of the very human desire to understand the unknown the only way to true happiness? There are no answers. With a colorful score, drab cinematography, and pitch-perfect gore effects to keep even the most jaded viewer sated, it’s not too much to ask that Romero have some point to drive home, particularly when he did it so well with his preceding films. In spite of this, Day of the Dead easily rises to the top in zombie films, largely because it has no equal in exploring the psychological meat of the genre, even if it fails to fully entertain.
Fortunately, the only definitive version of Day of the Dead is readily available on both DVD and Blu-ray, the latter of which will help satisfy those who mainly delve into the zombie genre for the unparalleled gross-outs, of which Day of the Dead features some of the best examples.