With the zombie plague having engulfed the planet, the living dead now outnumber human survivors 400,000 to one. In an underground missile silo in Florida, a team of scientists work to understand the undead phenomenon, bringing them into conflict with the trigger-happy soldiers they share the base with.
George A. Romero’s third zombie film treads the middle ground between the terrifying, intense Night of the Living Dead and the bawdy, knockabout Dawn of the Dead. Maligned by some fans on its release – who perhaps expected a more spectacular film, Day of the Dead has aged very well, more so than many of its mid-80s horror peers. Budgetary constraints and Romero’s unwillingness to compromise the violence meant he was famously unable to make the film he originally conceived, but taken on its own terms, this one is a tough, bleak-but-blackly funny shocker.
On the whole, the acting is at its strongest in this one, even if the cast aren’t always sure of tone that Romero’s going for – Lori Cardille plays it straight as the resourceful heroine, while Joe Pilato hams it up wildly as evil Captain Rhodes. Richard Liberty, playing the cracked Dr Logan, the doctor convinced that the zombies can be socialised, is the standout, firmly in the tradition of mad movie doctors yet (unlike Pilato) keeping his character believable. There’s a real love and admiration in his eyes as he watches Bub, the most promising of his zombie subjects, slowly remember aspects of his pre-undead life. Equally, the moment when Bub discovers Logan’s slain corpse is the film’s most moving sequence, helped by Howard Sherman’s beautifully subtle performance. And what the entire cast do convey is the sense that these are exhausted, desperate people, who are doing everything they can to maintain a level of normality, whether it’s by performing futile research (the scientists), or maintaining a tough, bullying attitude (the soldiers).
Romero uses the underground setting to suitably claustrophobic effect; apart from the opening scenes and some moments towards the climax the entire film is set in either the bright, clinical corridors of the base or the gloomy caves around it. There’s a lot of dialogue too – another complaint from the film’s initial detractors – but Day of the Dead showcases Romero at his best as a scriptwriter, particularly in the apocalyptic monologue delivered by Terry Alexander (playing John, the chilled Jamaican ‘copter pilot). "We're bein' punished by the Creator. He visited a curse on us...maybe He figure, we gettin' too big for our britches, tryin' to figure His shit out."
The film also sees Tom Savini and his team working at their peak. The gore is vivid and plentiful, and the effects exceed Dawn of The Dead for hilarious, gruesome inventiveness. There’s a squirming zombie brain still attached to its body, an upturned decapitated head with the eyes still darting, the skin ripped from a soldier’s face, and the spectacular climatic torso-tearing of poor old Rhodes. John Harrison’s electronic score hasn’t aged that well (especially the squealing ‘rock’ guitar), and the surprisingly happy ending feels a little tacked on – the hopeful but ambiguous tone on which Dawn ends would surely have suited the film better. But for the most part, this is one of the decade’s very best, most intelligent chillers.
[The new Arrow/Fremantle DVD is presented in 16:9 Anamorphic widescreen and a world exclusive commentary with the effects team. Also included are a new documentary The Many Days of the Dead, a behind the scenes feature, filmographies, galleries and trailers]
American writer/director and one of the most influential figures in modern horror cinema, whose ability to write strong scripts and characters match his penchant for gory chills. The Pittsburgh native began his career directing adverts before making Night of the Living Dead in 1968. This bleak, scary classic ushered in a new era of horror film-making, but Romero struggled initially to follow it up - There's Always Vanilla is a little-seen romantic drama, and Jack's Wife was butchered by its distributor. The Crazies was a flop but still an exciting slice of sci-fi horror, and while the dark vampire drama Martin again made little money but got Romero some of the best reviews of his career and remains the director's personal favourite.