George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead is unquestionably the most controversial and debated entry in the filmmaker’s unrivaled zombie trilogy. Critics who respected Night of the Living Dead for both its raw verité pulpiness as well as its social commentary didn’t care much for Day of the Dead. Zombie fanatics raised on the luscious, lasagna-gut goriness and the capitalistic anarchy of Dawn of the Dead also didn’t go for the film.
During production of Day of the Dead, Romero himself admitted time and again that the script he ended up with was far different from the film he envisioned capping off his cinematic touchtone. And at the time of the film’s release, no one seemed satisfied with the end result short of the real gorehounds, who would have you believe that make-up artist Tom Savini was the film’s true auteur and consider Dario Argento one of Dawn of the Dead’s true muses.
But a not-so-unexpected revisionism has finally kicked in and has begun to save the black sheep of Romero’s zombie films and isolate it for what it is: an unapologetically nihilistic coda that adds unbearable gravity to a formula earlier presented with at least a faint glimmer of hope. If Day of the Dead’s reputation pales when held up against Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, it’s because fanboys and critics got the message all too clear: With Day of the Dead, Romero is through fucking around with allegory.
The reputations of Romero’s first two zombie films—aside from being fantastically scary, of course—rest primarily on their amazingly perceptive attunement to the mood of their respective contemporary time periods. Night of the Living Dead’s take on the ’60s famously invokes the gritty sense of a society living moment by intense moment and being torn apart by a myriad moral schisms. With Dawn of the Dead, Romero went the next step and proposed for the first time that not much separates the zombies from the humans. Both apparently love shopping malls. The anti-consumerist critique of the second film seems to have even more resonance today. If there was little societal change that had taken place between the first and second films, more frightening is just how little had changed between the second and third.
The pop-cultural relevance of the first two films may be partially responsible for Day of the Dead’s continued neglect. Who needs a new social problem put through Romero’s allegorical wringer when the pathologies of the first two films are still pervasive today? Which is exactly why Day of the Dead is worth serious discussion: recognizing Romero’s attempt to eschew the distancing effect of satire by refusing to invoke the social ills of the Reagan era alone.
With Day of the Dead, Romero chose to directly address the nature of human emotions and prejudices that tear us apart regardless of whatever global hot spot is inspiring newspaper headlines and political debates. That Romero has yet to get the long-rumored Twilight of the Dead into the works is telling. Day of the Dead’s resistance to being pigeonholed into its decade frees it from merely being “the ’80s zombie movie.”
Day of the Dead opens with a straight-on shot of Sara (Lori Cardille, the human protagonist by default) alone in an empty white room, sitting on the floor with her head down. With the film’s intro, Romero suggests the comfort of a cozy and unattainable dream world, a respite from the brutality of her real-life situation: being stuck in an underground shelter with nutcase scientists and hair-trigger militia all at each other’s throats. Dawn of the Dead opened on a similar frenzied high-note, only at this point in the zombie epidemic the physical fatigue of what remains of the human race has all but obliterated any possibilities of survival (“We’re outnumbered now,” the mad Dr. Logan explains, “400,000 to 1, by my estimation.”) One aspect of Day of the Dead that likely turned off many viewers is just how unsparing and focused Romero’s portrayal of humanity’s last stand really is. Unlike the two earlier films, there’s little-to-no suspense spent over who will survive and who will be torn limb from limb.
For some the way to “enter” Day of the Dead is through the touching teacher-student relationship Dr. Logan shares with the docile zombie Bub (and the winning performances given by Richard Liberty and Howard Sherman, respectively). Because the zombies’ overwhelming majority over the human race makes killing them all but a pipe dream, Dr. Logan’s attempts to convince the film’s shortsighted military thugs that humanity’s last hope rests on a complete reassessment of their moral and scientific priorities.
Logan argues that instead of futilely attempting to find a “cure” for the zombie disease, the monsters should be completely retrained “like good little boys and girls.” Romero’s thoughtful and sympathetic staging of the scenes where Logan re-teaches Bub how to use a walkman and a telephone indicate that he believes in the doctor’s notion that saving humanity means making radical, compassionate and perhaps somewhat idealistic leaps of faith. At the same time, Romero’s argument is tinged with the sadness of knowing the brutality of human nature under duress. In the end, Logan’s Quixotic quest is, quite naturally, cut short by violence (committed, importantly, not by the zombies but by the other living refugees).
With the notable exception of Bub’s goofy-yet-endearing pet tricks, which are meant to pointedly draw viewer sympathies toward the zombie brigade, Romero can’t be bothered to concoct the cute little paradiddles that endeared themselves to so many cult fans of Dawn of the Dead such as Gaylen Ross letting the nun zombie survive or another zombie’s almost nonchalant death by helicopter blades. No, the first two-thirds of Day of the Dead are a grueling, systematically repetitious snit fit between the two warring human factions, followed by an orgy of violence that’s a far cry from Dawn of the Dead’s TV dinner-style gore. (Kubrick used this bifurcated structure with his Vietnam psych-out Full Metal Jacket.)
The mild comic relief of the first two films (zombie pratfalls slay ‘em every time) is nowhere to be found here. The closest that Day of the Dead comes to a joke is when one of the doomed soldiers unleashes a chipmunk scream as his head is pulled off, his stretching vocal cords causing his voice to ascend octaves before it dies away completely.
Paradoxically, some find Day of the Dead to be the most hopeful of the trilogy, thanks mostly to its pseudo-upbeat coda and how it seems to reinforce some people’s Dante-esque notion of a trilogy structure guiding them through the Inferno of Night of the Living Dead and into the tropical Paradiso that closes Day of the Dead. But to only see escape and respite in the final Caribbean tableau is to ignore the film that precedes it. Aside from the fact that the underground hide-out also had its own faux-paradise (both are musically underscored with the same amusingly naïve marimba-laden John Harrison music) that proved to be no oasis, Romero also uses the motif of Sara awaking from nightmares throughout the film. Each dream that Sara suffers speaks as much of future dangers as it addresses past traumas. Romero seems to be saying, dream all you want but the nightmare is never over.
Watching Day of the Dead with visions of sugary Dawn of the Dead tableaus dancing in your head, one is struck with the almost angry deconstruction of the zombie legend that Romero unleashes with this savage finale to the trilogy. (With this film, Romero all but laid the repulsive framework for a nearly forgotten ’80s splatterpunk movement, an explosive collision of gore and apocalypse subgenres.) Though still unmistakably allegorical, much of the irony and parable foreshadowing of Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead has all but vanished, leaving behind bitterness, lament and cynicism.
In a world that seems to drift further and further into a diplomatic declaration of martial law with each and every Presidential address, the overriding voice of Day of the Dead speaks for the universal rage of all displaced peoples, backed into a corner and certain that they are in the oppressed minority. Day of the Dead is the synthesis of all the racial, tribal, social and governmental concerns of the first two films, and Romero’s notions are not pretty.
Early in the film, when Sara visits Dr. Logan’s lair, the scientist shows her a zombie with his digestive system completely hollowed out. When Dr. Logan waves a hand above the zombie’s mouth and the creature still lunges for human flesh, the scientist theorizes that the zombie isn’t acting out of hunger but from pure instinct. Romero then juxtaposes this scene with a tense meeting between the survivors’ military and scientific subgroups.
Many critics at the time of the film’s release complained that the humans were by and large indistinguishable from their flesh-eating nemeses. But clearly Romero’s overriding statement with this Reagan-era zombie chapter is to be found in this exact shift. Day of the Dead represents a swing from viewing humanity as a protagonist to seeing humanity as antagonist. As Dr. Logan suggests, the film’s zombies are the imperfections within ourselves, just as Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead portrayed the zombies as an unmistakable “other.” Day of the Dead offers a frightening glimpse at humanity’s instinctual proclivity to destroy itself. The racial tensions of the first film are but one aspect of this habit. Here, a pessimistic Romero dares to tackle the very essence of man’s inhumanity to man. And in the end, Day of the Dead is every bit as compelling and unsettling as its more lauded predecessors.