Day of the Dead is the stubborn dog of George A. Romero’s legendary “Living Dead” series. It has its intriguing qualities, and you grudgingly respect it, but the damn thing will up and bite you just as you’ve gotten to thinking that maybe you two might get along after all. One is tempted to cut Day of the Dead some slack because Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead are two such daunting acts to follow, but the truth is that the film simply doesn’t work, despite what revisionists may claim, and, worse, it represented the beginning of Romero’s creeping irrelevancy as an artist.
Day of the Dead initiated Romero’s preoccupation with concept at the expense of his films’ pulse. On paper, it sounds like a perfectly logical extension of Dawn of the Dead, as it follows a group of scientists and soldiers who’re hastily assembled in a Florida swamp out in the middle of nowhere with the theoretical aim of taming, or at least rationalizing, the dead, who’ve now taken over the world as Dawn of the Dead’s ending had implied they would. Dr. Sarah Bowman (Lori Cardille) is Day of the Dead’s requisite Romero stand-in and font of liberal ideals, as she aims to…well, what is her aim? I’m not sure Romero ever figures that out: At times, Sarah’s sympathies appear to lay with the compound’s resident mad scientist, Logan (Richard Liberty), a.k.a. “Dr. Frankenstein,” who’s intent on proving that the dead can be trained more or less as household pets and thus rendered harmless.
At other times, Sarah understandably regards Logan as a lunatic who’s every bit as self-absorbed as the film’s resident wacko military leader, Captain Rhodes (Joseph Pilato). The potentially subversive point is that Sarah’s own beliefs are dwarfed by the toxic ideological extremes embraced by these twin fascists who occupy opposite sides of the conservative/liberal coin, and that she’s left adrift because she’s a rational person given to considering both sides logically—an implication that’s more relevant now than ever for anyone who picks up a newspaper for even a cursory glance.
Despite his reputation as a purveyor of despairing flower-child horror, Romero has always played fair, and even Day of the Dead, his 1980s Reagan film, allows room for conservative viewpoints that make sense. Rhodes is eventually revealed to be a maniac, but he mostly allows the scientists to do whatever they want until he discovers that Logan has been screwing around with the corpses of his fallen soldiers. Rhodes’s distrust of this highfalutin airy-fairy talk of “civilizing” the dead isn’t only logical given the circumstances, but damn near beyond debate. In the audio commentary included on the disc, Romero even tellingly concedes that Rhodes has a point when he tells the scientists that they need him and his men (and their accompanying firepower) more than they need the scientists’ research and figures.
Romero’s satirical aim, then, is to take the stereotype of liberals as being better talkers than doers to its most hideous extremes. Logan obviously represents a Republican’s worst nightmare of the liberal who would sell his own country out from under him in order to uphold contextually meaningless notions of civility, and Rhodes is the liberal’s idea of the Republican demagogue who regards the world only in terms of power and military might.
As I said, plenty of concept, but Day of the Dead is more fun to discuss than to actually watch. The first act mostly works as a gory 1980s action comedy of bickering consumption, but the rest is a cold, schematic consideration of Romero’s pet themes. There’s no urgency because the characters never transcend their initial stereotypical associations, as they did in Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. Watching Day of the Dead, it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that Romero’s been sitting with these ideas too long, and that they’ve subsumed whatever impulses he had as a dramatist—a suspicion that would be confirmed beyond any reasonable doubt years later with the entirely misbegotten Land of the Dead.
Day of the Dead, however, still shames what usually passes for a zombie film these days. The editing (particularly that characteristic Romero cold open), the attention to texture and detail, Tom Savini’s unrivaled makeup effects, the despairing earnestness—these are qualities that seem to have gone the way of the dodo in this age of the sprinting CGI zombie that’s come to sadly epitomize our speed-over-everything-else value as a culture. (The chilling, poignant Pontypool is a bracing exception.) To revisit Day of the Dead, however unfulfilled its promises may be, is to remember that your granddaddy’s zombie is still better than yours.
The colors really pop, which is particularly nice for Tom Savini’s wonderfully disgusting makeup effects, but the image is awfully soft, even when one considers the film’s age and low-budget origins. Not bad, but no game changer. Same goes for the competent but somewhat flat English DTS-HD Master Audio mono track.
The best extra is the audio commentary by George A. Romero, Savini, production designer Cletus Anderson, and actress Lori Cardille, which, I think, has been carted over from prior editions of the film. These folks are pros who know what the nerds want to hear, and they cover all matters of the "Living Dead" lore with a conversational nonchalance that’s very endearing (Romero always registers as one of the cuddliest of all filmmaker interview subjects). There’s also a fan commentary with filmmaker Roger Avary that’s obviously pretty old (he refers to the then-theoretical Land of the Dead as Dead Reckoning), and that’s amusing and obnoxious in roughly equal measure. Avary says this is his favorite "Living Dead" film, but never really tells us why, as he seems pleased enough to be embracing an unconventional opinion merely for its own sake. The director also has an annoying tendency to omit Night of the Living Dead as a film in the series, as he often expresses thoughts of what would comprise the ultimate third dead film. "World’s End: The Legacy of Day of the Dead" is the most notable new extra, a 90-minute collection of interviews with all the relevant parties. It unavoidably mines the same material as the commentaries, but it’s a fun way to provide a contemporary viewpoint on a controversial film in the horror community. Rounding out this characteristically affectionate package are a variety of trailers, galleries, and promotional items.
Any real zombie fan knows that political parable and decomposing cannibal corpse gore go together like peanut butter and jelly, but Day of the Dead found the subgenre’s reigning master and poet-in-residence mismanaging the proper ratios a bit.