Three decades ago, one day shy of Independence Day, horror fans from sea to shining sea poured into their local theater to get a jump on celebrating America’s birthday the only sensible way they knew how – by taking in a viewing of Day of the Dead, the relentlessly grim and gruesome capper to George A. Romero‘s legendary Trilogy of the Dead.
At least it was a trilogy back then. In the years since, Romero has made an official Day follow-up (Land of the Dead), a found footage quasi-reboot (Diary of the Dead), and a sequel to the found footage movie that went back to the traditional look and narrative of the earlier films (Survival of the Dead). Even when the quality of the film leaves much to be desired, Romero’s affinity for the skin-crawling poetry of his growing army of decaying undead cannibals often helped pave over any rough patches in the narrative, and demonstrated that a zombie movie could be infinitely more than a mere scare flick for a slow Saturday evening.
Day of the Dead may not be Romero’s most terrifying movie (that would be Night of the Living Dead, the one that started it all), or his most imaginative (Dawn of the Dead, the original of course), but it is by far his gory magnum opus. He’s no longer portraying a world on the brink of collapse. The job is done. The dead have taken over. As we see in the haunting opening sequence, zombies are literally roaming the street without consequence. They’re running low on food because there is hardly a warm body in sight. The loose-knit and tension-ridden scientists and soldiers who live in a constant state of unease in an underground military base and abandoned missile silo, comprise the only surviving members of the human race.
The brains of the operation work tirelessly to find a solution to the world’s zombie problem. Since there isn’t enough ammunition left to give each of the shambling suckers a direct shot to the brain pan, the only logical solution is to somehow establish an uneasy truce with the dead. Domestication, giving the zombies alternate dining options, nothing seems to really work. Then the brilliant but deranged Dr. Logan (the late Richard Liberty), introduces to his colleagues Sarah (Lori Cardille) and Fisher (John Amplas), his pride and joy – Bub (Sherman Howard), a zombie that has managed, through Logan’s careful and loving encouragement, to recall the abilities to shave, operate a cassette player, and even load and fire a pistol. He has formed a bond with Logan that enables him to see the scientist as a friend, not as his next meal. It’s the closest the team has had to a breakthrough in years and it doesn’t guarantee that humanity will survive, but it’s a start.
This development is hardly enough to convince the increasingly unstable commanding officer Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato), and his trigger-happy subordinates, that the entire program shouldn’t be scuttled in a hail of machine gun fire, and everyone left to run for what will be left of their lives. That’s pretty much what the third act entails, once the shaky collaboration between the military and the scientists completely breaks down in an orgy of bullets, blood, and shredded flesh.
After the looser, funnier, and more ambitious Dawn of the Dead became one of the most profitable independent horror films of its day, Romero planned an even grander follow-up with Day. His original script was to be an epic of action and zombie terror, on a scale no one had ever attempted. In order to do the script (which is widely available to read online) proper justice, Romero would need for its violence and gore to not be constrained by the Motion Picture Association of America’s rating system.
Dawn had been a four course buffet of sickening, yet revolutionary special effects created by Romero’s longtime go-to man for practical gore, Tom Savini, and was released theatrically without a rating after the MPAA slapped it with the dreaded “X” (the “NC-17” of the time). Romero wanted the same for Day, but in order to make the film he envisioned, his financier insisted that the violent content be toned down to an acceptable “R” rating. Rather than compromise his vision, Romero rewrote the script so he could make his movie as gruesome as he could get it.
The scaled-back approach results in a return to the claustrophobic intensity of Night of the Living Dead, with two disparate groups futilely dealing with their massive zombie problem through opposing ideologies, while confined to a single location. This time around, Romero is shooting in full color and without a net in a more expansive locale, allowing for Savini to let his diabolical imagination run beautifully wild.
In spite of the film’s budgetary limitations, the zombies look more horrific than Romero and Savini have previously been able to present them. Covered with festering wounds, dripping with gruesome and loosened innards, and visibly animalistic, these zombies are miles more horrifying than when they were portrayed by extras with simple applications of blue and grey pancake make-up, and moderate bloody abrasions in Night and Dawn. Some of the images, such as a zombified soldier’s severed head and the base’s former commanding officer’s exposed brain and corpse kept alive with electrodes, seem to emerge straight from the kind of horror comic book that opportunistic politicians would have railed against publicly back in the 1950’s.
The primary filming location was the former Wampum Mine in Wampum, Pennsylvania, which is now the Gateway Commerce Center. A cavernous labyrinth that has become a massive mausoleum for both the living and the dead, it provides the perfect setting for a story in which the zombies may have taken over the world, but they still pale in comparison to the atrocities that the surviving humans commit against each other.
The performances from the main cast range from adept and warm (Cardille, who makes for a resourceful heroine capable of expressing the right amount of emotion at the right times), to ragingly over-the-top (Pilato, practically a bulging neck vein in place of a person by his final scene), and everything in-between. The supporting cast – including Terry Alexander (Conspiracy Theory) and Jarlath Conroy (True Grit) as Sarah’s reluctant allies, Gary Howard Klar (Miami Blues), as the most vicious of Rhodes’ bully boy troops, and Savini’s protégé and fellow visual effects genius Greg Nicotero as an unfortunate soldier – are all good enough to avoid being pushed off to the sidelines, in favor of the parade of zombies devouring anyone they can get their grubby hands on in the finale.
Try though the rest of the cast, they can’t help but have the show entirely stolen from them by Richard Liberty and Sherman Howard. Liberty, who passed away in October of 2000 and had previously worked with Romero on 1973’s The Crazies, is a real hoot as the unhinged Dr. Logan. From the moment we meet him, we can see that the man has clearly taken a swan dive into the deep end of the pool, not knowing the pool is empty. There isn’t a single scene Logan is in where he isn’t covered in blood, and sporting a rather amused smile, the look of a person who has embraced insanity to survive. But it turns out that Logan might be one of the sanest people in the movie, especially when compared to the armed psycho squad that calls themselves soldiers.
One of the character’s best moments, which is also one of the highlights of Day, is when Logan unveils Bub to his colleagues. He chuckles at the name he chose for his prize subject since it turns out that Bub was his father’s nickname. Then he gets a little wistful while recalling the old man, and for a moment there, Liberty lets you see the dedicated professional Logan might have once been. Deep down, he’s just like the majority of us humans, desiring to be great and wanting our parents to be proud of what we had accomplished.
One of the main reasons why Day of the Dead has endured since it was almost widely rejected by audiences on the big screen, and went on to find new life on home video, is Howard’s performance as Bub. He’s the film’s most iconic character, and possibly one of Romero’s greatest creations. Bub is a marvel of character work and performance that I would gladly place next to Boris Karloff’s portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster, in the pantheon of high caliber acting in horror cinema. The greatest feat Logan pulls off in his work with Bub is not to get him to recall how to shave or read or book, but to help this decaying sack of putrid humanity recover his soul. He’s the only character in the film to have an actual character arc, and Howard plays every emotional note Bub experiences and reflects without a solitary false step. When Bub breaks free from his restraints and takes action against the villainous Rhodes in the finale, you can’t help but cheer him on all the way. I do it every time.
Day of the Dead is currently available in a pretty nifty Blu-ray from Scream Factory that features a spruced-up HD remaster, a pair of excellent filmmaker commentaries, vintage behind-the-scenes footage, and an extensive retrospective documentary. You can also read more about interesting production stories about the movie in Lee Karr’s book The Making of George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead.
Thanks for taking this little corpse-strewn trip down Memory Lane with yours truly. In the spirit of Independence Day, I’ll let Bub sign off. This one goes out from border to border and coast to coast and all the ships at sea. God bless America, and God bless George A. Romero.