Day of the Dead, unleashed in July of 1985, was the third in George A. Romero’s Dead trilogy (not to be confused with Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy), which has created a foundation for a whole horror subgenre and its attendant culture of obsessives. It wasn’t as blithely satirical as its predecessor, Dawn of the Dead, and it was far more technically sophisticated than either of its forerunners. Owing to these improvements, Day of the Dead is the most direct reference point for all subsequent “serious” treatments of the zombie archetype. Despite its landmark status, it’s accorded far less acclaim than Dawn of the Dead, which is often heralded as the pinnacle of the trilogy. This is unfair to Day of the Dead, which seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle, so much so that its iconic contribution to the genre has been overlooked.
After the carousing and confusion of Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead shows us a world where humans have gone from being entirely reactionary—desperate, safety-seeking, and ineffectively attempting to maintain their institutions—to being proactive, fortifying their positions, rebuilding society, and assessing the wider situation. The underground bunker of Day of the Dead is a society struggling to find a political form, with a fascistic military element vying with a cadre of scientists, working against all odds toward some sort of utopian solution. This distills into a conflict between hopeless rumination and hopeless impulse…and between short-term tactics and long-term strategy.
Sarah (Lori Cardille) resembles a much later strong female Sarah, at least superficially. I’m referring to Sarah Connor, the institutionalized guerilla warrior from James Cameron’s Terminator 2, for whom Romero’s Sarah seems to be a direct precedent. These two women, on the brink of two fictional apocalypses, have learned to handle guns and command soldiers; privately, they both suffer from the catastrophic psychological damage that their traumatic lives have caused. Where Richard Liberty’s Logan (aka Dr. Frankenstein) seems lost in his speculation and experimentation, and Joe Pilato’s Rhodes channels his panic into totalitarian tendencies, Sarah is the model soldier-scientist: her analytical mind blunts her emotions and allows her to act dispassionately, whether she’s sedating her lover during a mental breakdown, or confronting her military protectors about the futility of in-fighting.
The tension between the brain and the fist is kept alive by failure and hopelessness. Doctors Logan, Sarah, and Ted (John Amplas) search for long-term solutions, but what do they intend to do? Educate a whole planet of flesh-eating monsters, one creature at a time? Their approach to the situation is a vain hope, an aimless puttering kept alive because there’s not much else to do. Rhodes and the soldiers demand short-term solutions, like eradicating the hordes outside the fences, and these knee-jerk violent tendencies keep them on the verge of abandoning their own stronghold, but they retain control, largely because their short-term solutions seem as self-destructive as the long-term solutions seem ineffectual. So despair is the great equalizer, manifesting as wild-eyed panic among the military men (successors to the delirious survivors of Dawn of the Dead), and as obsessive madness among the scientific types. The sense of inevitable doom is written all over the faces of Romero’s protagonists.
Ultimately, it’s only the civilians, John (Terry Alexander) and Bill (Jarlath Conroy), who seem to have found an answer: even in the face of complete collapse, they aspire to harmony and self-sufficiency, holding contentment as their highest ideal. They have no qualms about fighting when necessary, but the great apparatuses of power, history and legacy aren’t important to them. John is ready to see the whole framework of civilization burned to the ground, and he’s happy to start anew in the ashes, fishing pole in hand. For John and Bill, this philosophical position may come partly from religion, the traces of which are scattered through their home; it may also come from the pair’s experience of being oppressed by the society that they’re supposed to be mourning. Their status as a gay couple is never spelled out, but it’s implied, and why would two men care to preserve the legacy of a corrupt nation when they can’t even have children to appreciate it?
Ideologies and social commentaries aside, the nastiest trick that Day of the Dead pulled on its audience was Bub, the rehabilitated zombie played by Sherman Howard. Before Day, Romero had spent two movies letting society collapse, and hooking us into the characters’ immediate quest for survival. Our only consolation was human solidarity in the face of the zombies, which we could comfortably treat as a faceless horde. With the accursed research of “Dr. Frankenstein” Logan, Romero gives us what we realize we never wanted: a glimpse of redemption in the depths of a hungry monster. Howard takes a justly-praised turn as a predatory machine gradually learning recognition, restraint and curiosity—the early indicators of rationality—and if you and I are anything alike, you found that Bub inspired an unfamiliar response: an even mix of vile discomfort and unexpected sympathy. In this capacity, Bub is the series’ first foray into questions that will continue to preoccupy its later incarnations: in a time of war, is the perpetual need to see yourself in your enemy a noble quest, or is it self-sabotage?
In looking for the virtues Day of the Dead doesn’t have—the lovable, campy subversive quality of its forerunner, or the pared-down minimalism of the original—critics often miss the virtues it does have. Day of the Dead has a true emotional core, a sustained mood and a commitment to the grim reality of its world. This oppressive weight is something new to the series, and results in a central component of future zombie lore: an absolutely serious, unyielding, unapologetic post-apocalyptic world, where all of humanity is dealing with the ultimate insoluble problem.
There was some great fun had at the expense of Dawn of the Dead, like the recently-discussed send-up Return of the Living Dead, but let’s face it…in an age of biological and environmental alarmism, genetic and biochemical innovation, and domestic and international political paranoia, it’s a good time to take the zombie film seriously. Romero’s genre is one of the few platforms where we can reflect on how we might react in a complete global breakdown, or consider what we might become in the face of an unstoppable adversary.
The narratives that are giving serious time to these questions—Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead—are all the successors to Day of the Dead, rather than Dawn or Night. They always include the “unassailable military stronghold” as a setpiece, and they all address the threat of individual psychological breakdown. They all concern themselves with man’s natural desire to “save” and redeem the zombies from their fallen state; and they all stress the tendency of microsocieties to break into factions and fall back on violent conflict instead of rational decision-making. From the post-Day vantage point, the “mall” setting of Dawn of the Dead seems like a lark…the true genesis of serious zombie fiction is here, with Dr. Frankenstein’s twisted science and Miguel’s mental breakdown, with Rhodes’ and Steel’s fascism and Bub’s dim twinkle of human rationality, in an underground military bunker at the center of a devastated and deserted world.
Jesse Miksic blogs at Benefit of the Doubt.