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.