America has been overrun by zombies. A small group of militia and scientists are holed up in an underground base to conduct tests and studies in hopes of discovering a cure to reverse the effects of the zombie plague. However, isolated and losing hope, tensions flare as the military and the scientific personnel start getting anxious. Soon, the zombies become a secondary enemy to a much more frightening one—human nature.
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Romero’s third instalment of his zombie series leads us far away from his conventional formulas he’s used in the films; however it brings to the table a much different take on an impending doomsday crisis. While it may not be a pleasant thought, I find that the neat spin from his previous films makes for a very different experience from what we’ve seen before. That kind of spin ultimately gave him negative reception for Day of the Dead, but it still remains in my heart as the best of the series.
His last two films were critically acclaimed for being both horrifying and thought-provoking at the same time, something otherwise unheard of from a horror film. His original Night of the Living Dead, made in the 60’s, was critically praised for its mirroring of Vietnam-era ideals and issues. In 1979, Romero’s follow up, Dawn of the Dead, tackled the effects of American consumerism that creepily reflected the state of the zombies in the film. His third, however, was taking a different route. It was less period-specific, more psychologically oriented, and incredibly unsettling. The film touched upon much simpler issues, such as the villainy that humans are capable of, even in light of the oncoming relentless living dead. While the tone is darker, the gore is gorier, and the nihilism seems to reign throughout, Day of the Dead remains the perfect tutorial on how not to act during a zombie apocalypse.
The main point that differentiates Day of the Dead from Romero’s previous two films is the unappealing content. Some say the previous two were expertly crafted in representing what concerned society at the time. This film frankly did not. I won’t argue with that accusation, because it’s basically true. There is nothing behind the grey-faced, blood caked, dried, dull faces of the living dead, and the characters equally come off as unlikeable and off-putting. But sometimes you need this kind of change in pace to show the public what you really mean by a zombie apocalypse. I marvel at this film because of the “Eureka!” moment that occurred to me during the credits: There is nothing past the zombies. There are the zombies, there’s you, and then there’s death. In the face of an impending crisis, where hope is all but gone, and life is at the brink of existence, there is nothing more. Nihilism is a point not touched upon frequently during zombie flicks. Most people didn’t like the thought of “You will die, no matter what.” As realistic as that thought is, it’s not what people go to the movies for. It’s a sad truth, and it scares me a bit because it’s what I find the most interesting thing about this film. Nihilism aside, I found it satisfying that Romero finally got to the apocalyptic point in this film.
Then you have the human side of it. “You will die, no matter what,” encompasses a lot of things. Humans are a complicated species, and when surrounded by zombies, our very nature can devolve into disturbing states. If (or when) the dead rise to take over the living, how would we react? When people are forced into certain situations, their true colours show. Human condition can reveal itself with catastrophic effects. These characters are as if true colours started splattering on walls uncontrollably. They are exaggerations and stereotypes, but they only make the film even better when it comes to the tension that arises and the deaths that inevitably occur. Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato), the commander of the militia assigned to protect the research team, is a mean-faced and intimidating individual. Right from the start, his tempers are high and those ammo belts around his shoulders scream self-proclaimed authority. On the opposite side, the leader of the scientific team, Dr. Logan or “Frankenstein” (Richard Liberty), aptly named by Rhodes, whose appearance is that of a mad scientist and during the course of the film his secret laboratory reveals some gory truths. The only level-headed main character is Dr. Sarah Bowman (Lori Cardille), the only female on the team, who is subjected to sexism and condescendence by the military personnel, much to the civilians’ objection. She is the only level-headed character and represents the last glimmer of sanity in the otherwise unstable main characters. Not necessarily believable, but all together they make for some great fun, and unforgettable one–liners.
If the human characters didn’t already get you started, Bub comes in to steal the show. The loveable, simple-minded docile zombie, Dr. Logan’s prized specimen. He shows signs of intelligence, and lesser rabid tendencies, which give hope to Logan’s otherwise trite efforts in finding some way to deal with the undead rather than just bullets to the brain. When Rhodes finds out about Dr. Logan’s secret, we can assume that the man is not too pleased. In comes the transition from human versus environment (zombies) to human versus human. The build-up was more than explanatory, and the tipping point sets in motion the real carnage that Romero is so famous for. But more importantly, we discover the dangers of human nature, and how it destroys things quicker than any zombie can bite. The humans start it off, and the innocent zombies come in to pick up the scraps.
It’s hard to pinpoint my favourite element in this film, because both the insane characters and grisly, gruesome gore appeal to my zombific needs. Rhodes’ downright awesomeness is a great selling point in the film, despite his blatant insanity and disregard for a moral code. It could also be his equally awesome death, or the montage of our beloved supporting cast run for their lives and ultimately be swarmed by masses of grey, peeling, hungry hands. The more I think about it, I can conclude that the best thing about this film is how it started the progression that would continue on a few decades later, with his sequel “Land of the Dead.” The aspect of intelligence in zombies pushed the series forward, and it becomes an integral part of this film as well. Bub is a fan, cult and film favourite, and is coveted as a true hero among otherwise brainless menacing walking corpses. He’s a real keeper, and it almost hurts you to see his master meet a very surprising end. Nevertheless, you can pick out its inadequacies based on its predecessors, but I like to think that the pros outweigh cons in this film. Sure, most of the pros in this film are superficial and visually based, but that’s what modern zombie cinema has turned into anyways.
This film, undoubtedly, will scare you. It’ll scare you when you realize the true nature of humans—they are always in need of an enemy. When the zombies are out of the picture, separated by white walls and glass windows, we will need an enemy. The effect of that thought is what drives this film, and it may scare you enough to keep you stuck to your seat, or enough to make you bolt out of the theatre. Romero had ambition in mind when making this film, and when the budget was cut short, I think some of his ambition was too. Still, he cites it as his favourite, and I can only agree with him there. Once you look past the legacy of his previous films, and the endless blood and guts this one provides, you can look at it by itself. You can look at what it represents and how it reflects us as humans. There is still that Romero commentary we all know to love and it remains the most frightening thing about his movies.