If you look at the history of George Romero’s career as a filmmaker, Day Of The Dead provides a fascinating example in how a film can transcend its initial reception to become a classic. It was considered a disappointment by many fans and critics when it was originally released in 1985, often rejected for being too talky and negative — particularly when compared with the fun, comic book adventure style of Dawn Of The Dead. However, Day Of The Dead has aged beautifully and it is now rightly seen as one of Romero’s greatest works. Indeed, its style and themes look downright visionary when you consider how the zombie subgenre has developed in recent years.
Day Of The Dead paints a stark portrait of humanity in retreat during a zombie apocalypse, claustrophobically confining most of the story to the events in an underground military bunker where a band of soldiers and scientists uneasily share quarters. Sarah (Lori Cardille) is the scientist heroine and she’s caught between a rock and a hard place. On one side, newly-minted commander Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato) and his band of macho-goon soldiers demand results in exchange for the protection they provide. They expect the impossible and they’re losing patience by the minute.
On the other side, Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty) leads the scientific charge and his experiments are pushing into dangerous territory. Rather than trying to cure the zombies, he wants to domesticate them: in fact, he is quite successful in his work with an oddly childlike zombie he has named Bub (Howard Sherman). However, his ambitions clash with Rhodes’ authoritarian temperament — and as tempers fray, Sarah’s last hope may lie with cynical helicopter pilot John (Terry Alexander) and his radio-man sidekick Billy (Jarlath Conroy). Meanwhile, the zombie horde outside grows larger and ever more determined…
Part of the reason that Day Of The Dead threw the horror audience for a loop during its original release is that it favors drama as much as it does horror. Much of the first hour is dominated by heated discussions between the characters about how the zombie epidemic should be dealt with as well as the future of the human race. The characterizations are complex, with Romero not afraid to show the film’s protagonists in an unfavorable light to further the film’s themes. The dialogue is dark yet frequently profound… and laced with a grim humor that predicts the tone of today’s zombie films.
This approach works for three reasons: this first is that Romero is at the peak of his powers here as a writer. The heated exchanges between different factions are full of quotable putdowns (Rhodes rules the roost in this department) and fascinating philosophical insights. In particular, a monologue from John about how humanity’s ceaseless ambition might have brought down the zombie plague is beautifully written. Logan’s theoretical discussions of how zombie-dom works are also great stuff, mixing acidic wit with scientific daring.
The second reason the talk-intensive approach works is that Romero’s direction brings a real intensity to the proceedings. He gives the characters’ disputes the high stakes and palpable tension of a good action setpiece: a scene where Rhodes threatens to have Sarah shot for leaving a meeting is a real nail-biter. Romero is also savvy about his pacing and structure, seeding the first hour with little shocks like the tense, often bloody moments where the soldiers capture zombies for the scientists to experiment on and a scene where one unlucky staffer has to have his zombie-bitten arm amputated and cauterized.
The final reason the film’s drama-driven style connects is that Romero has collected a sharp cast that all give impressive performances. Cardille does complex work as the heroine, creating a protagonist who is weary yet brave — and her determination pulls the viewer through the film. Pilato gives a darkly hilarious performance as the film’s perpetually apoplectic military leader and Liberty matches his work with a subtler but no less witty performance as the crazy-like-a-fox Logan. Elsewhere, there are effective supporting turns by G. Howard Klar as Rhode’s sleazy, brutal second-in-command and Alexander as charmingly apolitical John.
That said, the film’s most stunning performance comes from Sherman as the unexpectedly sympathetic zombie Bub. Using an effective character makeup and almost zero dialogue, he deploys body language and expressive facial reactions with precision to create a character of simple yet intensely vivid emotions. In a film where humanity is either repressed or forgotten by the human survivors, Sherman’s work shows off everything that people hold dear about human nature: inquisitiveness, loyalty, the desire to connect with others. Not only is one of the best performances ever in a zombie film, it’s one of horror cinema’s greatest “sympathetic monster” characters.
However, horror fans shouldn’t worry that Day Of The Dead is just a talkfest. In addition, to the bits of horror mentioned above, the film climaxes with the most brilliantly and gruesomely staged zombie siege in all of Romero zombie cinema. Tom Savini masterminded the impressive zombie makeups and the zombie-attack splatter effects and both bring the gruesomeness with an operatic intensity, particularly during the final twenty minutes. That section of the film offers payoff after bloody payoff, delivering everything a zombie gorehound could hope for with morbid élan.
Simply put, Day Of The Dead totally deserves the strong cult reputation it has built over the last few decades, delivering both shocks and insights into the human condition with equal amounts of fierce, uncompromising skill. If you’re a student of zombie cinema, this is required viewing.