Updated: Mar 30, 2019
What do you get when you throw a disgruntled military battalion, some ethnic stereotypes, an insane surgeon, and tons of zombies into an underground bunker? The answer: The 1985 zombie tour de force, George A. Romero's Day of the Dead.
Pardon the lame humor, but zombie films have been done to death. In 1985, however, it was a different story. Audiences hadn't yet been exposed to a deluge of the genre, and they were hungry for some undead action. Day of the Dead was a fresh concept, its only real predecessors being Romero's two other Dead films, the most recent at the time coming out seven years prior.
With his Dead trilogy, Romero had created an entire genre. True, there had been zombie films before, going back to the silent era. (Check out Bela Lugosi's White Zombie.) But Romero created the notion of the modern, flesh-eating undead. The producers of the glut of direct-to-DVD zombie films can thank Romero for getting their product on Wal-Mart shelves.
Romero's original zombie trilogy began, famously, with 1968's Night of the Living Dead. Night was a stand-alone film, never looking to spawn sequels. Dawn of the Dead, released ten years later, does not acknowledge Night. The zombie outbreak in Dawn is unprecedented in the film's reality, and is mercifully not explained, as Night flirted with doing. Dawn was in effect a reboot of Romero's concepts. Thus, Day of the Dead, although the franchise's third installment, is the first legitimate Dead sequel. Released in 1985, seven years after Dawn, and depicting an entire world in ruins after a long-running zombie infestation, Day picks up arguably in real time after its precursor. The film even directly references Dawn, in a line about shopping malls being closed. (Dawn was filmed in Pennsylvania's Monroreville Mall.) There's also a musical nod to Dawn's incredible score during a scene with Bub, Day's iconic zombie.
Speaking of music, what's a great horror film without it? Can you imagine Halloween or Christine without John Carpenter's legendary scores? Day of the Dead is no slouch on its sounds. Accentuating the terror, and periodically providing bits of respite, is John Harrison's stunning score. (Mr. Harrison is gracing the blog with an interview. This article will be linked to it, upon completion. UPDATE: Here it is.) Harrision's original musical work solidifies Day of the Dead as a masterpiece of horror, and you would do yourself a favor by picking up the Waxwork Records four-disc vinyl pressing.
The first time I saw Day of the Dead, it was on a Video Treasures VHS tape. I was already a big fan of Dawn, and I was excited to embark on a new zombie-evading adventure. I would be sorely disappointed.
The tape was given to me by my friend, the late low-budget filmmaker John Polonia, of Polina Bros. Entertainment fame. I loved John, but it was easy to see why he wanted to get rid of it. A murky print and muffled sound made what I could tell would have been a great film, unbearable. I didn't finish the movie. (I initially kept the tape because I'm a pack rat, but I will never get rid of it now, simply because it came from John.) Several years later, I picked up the limited-edition Anchor Bay Divimax DVD release, and it was like a veil had been lifted. When Day of the Dead was unraveled to me for the first time in crystal-clear glory, it was a sight to behold. A disgusting, unnerving sight to be sure, but one that proved to become a favorite film.
You either cherish or revile Day of the Dead. Roger Ebert famously hated it, and its overall reception upon theatrical release was tepid at best. This was mainly due to the fact that audiences were expecting something similar to what Dawn had delivered so many years before: an amusement park with a zombie motif. Dawn of the Dead was a fun movie. The masses weren't prepared for Day's nihilism and inescapable claustrophobia, and tastes wouldn't shift for quite a while. But time has been kind to Day of the Dead, and it has ultimately garnered legions of fans, including many viewers who hated the film at first. Maybe it's the swelling amount of genuinely bad horror that makes one retroactively appreciate Day. At any rate, I don't think we'll ever see a film take this long to be appreciated again. It's not too likely that in twenty years anyone is going to realize the genius of a movie that's currently considered to be lousy. And I blame that to a large degree on computer-generated imagery, more commonly known as CGI.
In my opinion, CGI is the bane of films, and horror movies in particular. Try as it may, CGI is more often than not discernible for what it is: a bunch of pixels superimposed onto the screen, half of a step better than a video game. If something's not really there, you can generally tell. I don't care how powerful the hardware is, or how capable the digital artists. And often, that's because CGI oversteps its bounds: The stuff it tries to pull off just isn't possible. Of course, that's why CGI is used. It's a vicious cycle. An ex-girlfriend of mine was the only person I've ever known who was actually a fan of CGI. That didn't contribute to our breakup, but it didn't really help things.
Lack of CGI is why '80s films in general hold up to this day, better than current films will likely work after thirty years. Practical effects are really there, tangible on the screen. Advanced puppetry and animatronics, prosthetics, great makeup and innovative gore all combine to make Day of the Dead a testament to why CGI just doesn't cut it. For stomach-churning visuals, Day will likely never be topped. The wizardry of Tom "Godfather of Gore" Savini made for jaw-dropping sequences, thanks to anatomical knowledge gleaned from his time in Vietnam.
Day of the Dead is one of those films which likely couldn't be made in the current cinematic climate, where its visceral, over-the-top gore would almost certainly be passed over for CGI, or at least be “accentuated” with it. (The 2008 and 2018 Day remakes are bargain bin fodder.) With Romero's Day of the Dead, we once again see that the '80s having limited digital resources was an asset to creativity, rather than a hindrance. There have been recent films with great practical effects (the incredibly gory and cleverly-written Turbo Kid ranks among them), but they are still peppered with computerized cancer. If you're an old-school effects purist like I am, you won't do better than Day of the Dead.