For being the father of the modern zombie film, George A. Romero sure got the short end of the stick when it came to actually making these movies. After the socially-conscious game-changer that was 1968’s independent film Night of the Living Dead, and its raucous, surprisingly-successful action follow-up, 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, you’d think Romero would have gotten anything he wanted for the third part in the series. But, in not wanting to settle for a basic R rating, Romero forfeit a much larger budget, which then precipitated what became his angriest, darkest, most doom-laden film — and what a corker it is! 1985’s Day of the Dead.
Romero’s original idea for Day was to be a big, expansive vision of what the zombie apocalypse looked like after months and months, with a whole above-ground base being besieged by zombies. As it ended up, though, it became subterranean, scaled back considerably, but with no less of the bite, if you’ll forgive the pun. For years, Day was considered by far the lesser of the original Dead trilogy, but it’s actually got a lot more going for it. In terms of horror, this movie doesn’t skimp at all, and despite the small cast, there’s no shortage of zombies to decapitate or humans to tear apart. It also allowed Romero and his right-hand effects man Tom Savini to be as gruesome and grotesque as possible, because it was going to be released unrated anyway!
The film takes place in Miami (or somewhere in Florida) in an underground bunker taken over by a small military group and an even smaller scientific research faction. They’ve been down there for way too long and people are starting to crack. Which is understandable, given that all they do all day is gather up zombies for scientific research and wait for the government, or SOMEONE, to realize they’re still down there. Not helping matters at all is that the chief researcher, Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty), has become fascinated with trying to teach zombies to be useful, to rehabilitate them. His penchant for slicing up specimens has given him the nickname “Frankenstein” by the soldiers, chief of whom is Capt. Rhodes (Joe Pilato), a frightening sort of Yosemite Sam-type who shouts and swears and pulls guns on everybody. The only one attempting to keep everything together is Sarah (Lori Cardille), the lone female of the bunch and one of Logan’s research assistants.
Sarah’s ability to keep people from murdering each other (or, let’s face it, to keep herself from being assaulted and brutalized by the gorilla-ish soldiers) is tested all the time, especially when her boyfriend, the rather effete soldier Miguel (Antonè DiLeo), starts showing signs of fatigue from lack of sleep and accidentally lets a zombie break loose, leading to the death of two soldiers. Sarah’s only friends are the nihilistic philosopher John (Terry Alexander) and the alcoholic Irishman McDermott (Jarlath Conroy), the helicopter pilot and radio operator, respectively. They stay in a camper way on the other end of the cave, far from the bickering. But their “idyllic” ignoring of the turmoil between mad scientist and army guy is surely not gonna last very long.
What sets this film apart from most other zombie movies is definitely the character of Bub, played by Howard Sherman (or Sherman Howard, I truly don’t know what the man’s actual name is). Bub is one of Dr. Logan’s experiments and he seems like one of the only candidates for actual rehabilitation. A zombie that seems to understand a bit more than the other, brainless teeth-gnashers, Bub shows an appreciation for music, and a bit of a vague memory for shaving his face. He also exhibits signs that he used to be a soldier as he salutes an angry and disgusted Rhodes when he enters the laboratory. Bub becomes one of the film’s only sympathetic characters, and it’s because he represents what might be the next step for the undead, a walking corpse with a bit of personality. The actor who plays him has said, “Bub is a smart zombie, which means he’s only about as smart as a very dumb dog.” But that’s enough for us.
Certainly Dawn of the Dead had its fair share of gore, but there was a comic booky, almost cartoonish quality to it, with almost DayGlo pink blood and zombies with blue-gray pallor. In Day of the Dead, Tom Savini and his crew went for realism as best they could on the budget, and as a result, the zombies look a lot more disgusting, and therefore awesome. The effects consisted of an autopsy zombie (above) trying to stand up after all of its cuts had been disconnected—resulting in intestines pouring out onto the floor. It also saw zombies without faces walking around, or movie through electricity, and still trying to eat humans. Instinct more than physical need, you see.
The human deaths were equally brutal, with one soldier getting his face torn off, another getting his head ripped off and his screams becoming more and more high-pitched as the vocal chords stretch. One of my favorite effects comes when McDermott sticks a shovel into the face of a zombie, steps on it, and then flicks the top of the still-blinking ghoul’s head into the cave. The creme de la creme of the piece, though, is Rhodes getting eviscerated by a group of zombies. As they devour his innards, the angriest man in film history spits out his final words: “Choke on ’em!”
Now, speaking of Rhodes, it’s worth noting that Joe Pilato’s performance is laughably over-the-top. But it works for the movie, because the character has truly lost his mind and all sense of reason. The rest of the performances in the film tend to be either hewing close to that, or completely the other way, much more reserved and nuanced. Lori Cardille is a real standout being both strong and supremely vulnerable. She has several scenes where she’s forced to do something drastic and then has a breakdown about it by herself later. She can’t let “the boys” know she’s at all weak, or she’ll become their prey. It’s a really tough position to be in, and the actress handles it incredibly well.
Day of the Dead is Romero at his most angry. The dialogue is full of F-bombs and insults and the actions taken by the characters are particularly brutal. But it works for this movie because of how hopeless the situation seems. It’s not like Night where people are just confused and trying to survive to get help, and it’s not Dawn which is about trying to slice away a little piece of the American Dream amid chaos and finding out how boring it all is; Day is a movie where all hope seems truly gone and society is completely outnumbered, and has truly lost. And it shows that living people are much more terrifying than dead ones. Without Day of the Dead, there would absolutely be no The Walking Dead. There just wouldn’t be. It’s the first movie to deal with a world after the apocalypse has won officially. Romero allows himself room for surrealism and pathos to a degree the earlier films couldn’t. While Dawn is still my favorite, Day is looking really good in its 30th year, and as prescient now as it ever was.
Images: Dead Films/Shout! Factory
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!