Day of the Dead (1985)

Day of the Dead (1985)

The Dead have waited. The day has come.

As the world above them has been destroyed by the zombie infestation, a small group of scientists and soldiers band together in an underground missile silo in an uneasy truce. The scientists are trying study the zombies in order to find a way to control them but this causes continual conflict with the soldiers. Eventually tensions between the two groups come to a head when the unstable Captain Rhodes takes command and raises concerns over the lack of scientific progress.

 

Often considered the weakest of the original George A. Romero zombie trilogy, Day of the Dead has grown on me for years until finally I’ve come to the decision that it is my favourite of the entire series and now one of my favourite horror films of all time. It’s the darkest of the trilogy by a long way. In fact it’s not just a depressing entry on Romero’s CV, it’s one of the most depressing and grim horror films ever made. It never reaches the climactic highs of the previous two films but Day of the Dead doesn’t need to go for the jugular in that respect. The previous films have set up this post-apocalyptic world and Day of the Dead simply takes that premise to bleak and harrowing new levels.

To put it in a more light-hearted way, Day of the Dead suffers from Alien 3 and Return of the Jedi syndrome in that it’s an underrated entry into a franchise which has been preceded by two landmark films. It never got the respect it deserved upon its original release and it’s only in the years that have gone by since, that fans have warmed to it. In my opinion, Romero creates one the best apocalyptic tones in horror ever for Day of the Dead. Gone is the morbid humour from Dawn of the Dead. This one is played deadly serious from the start. There’s nothing to lighten the mood. No jokes to relieve tension. Whereas the characters in his previous films had some glimmer of hope that they would be able to survive, here there is none. The characters all know that they’re simply buying time. They know that there’s no future for them. They attempt to keep themselves occupied but are living in denial. The dead outnumber them 400,000 to 1 and they have yet to make contact with other survivors, should there be any. For all they know, and we know, this small group of survivors are the only people left alive in the world. The fate of humanity rests on their shoulders. And that is a depressing thought when you look across the characters and the setting which will more likely become their tomb.

The underground missile silo is a fantastic set. It’s bland, colourless and seems to stretch for miles. At the same time, it’s extremely claustrophobic. Not the sort of place you would want to call home for however long these people have been trapped there. A brief foray into the outside world during the opening credits is about as much of the open air as you’re likely to get here and even then the scenes of the abandoned city, full of death, decay and despair are harrowing. It really hammers home just how hopeless the situation is.

Day of the Dead is slow. There’s no hiding that. The script is a slow burner and gears itself up towards its brutal finale. But it’s in these scenes of characters clashing with each other that the strength of the film shines through. Just what is everyone squabbling about really? It’s the end of the world for crying out loud! Just like the other films, Romero positions humans as the ultimate danger to each other – not the zombie hordes outside. Humanity will be its own downfall. Instead of rallying together in times of crisis, humanity has shown itself to have a ruthless streak of self-preservation. It’s not all doom-and-gloom with the characters and the film offers humanity two kinds of fate, either one not particularly encouraging but at least jetting away to some remote island and living out the rest of your days in peace is a darn sight better than being stuck in the bunker.

The cast do a tremendous job in conveying the mixed emotions and aspirations of the characters. Joseph Pilato gives an iconic genre performance as the insane Captain Rhodes. He borders on being a little over-the-top at times but make no mistake about it, this is an effective performance conveying a man who hasn’t just gone over the edge, he’s fallen all the way to the bottom. Lori Cardelle adds a touch of warmth and sensibility as the only female in the cast. The real star on the acting front is Howard Sherman, who portrays Bub, the zombie whom the scientists have been trying to domesticate. Sherman’s personality and mannerisms shine through the make-up to turn Bub into the most sympathetic character on display, a stark contrast to the bickering humans.

It is Tom Savini who is the true star of Day of the Dead. The legendary make-up effects man produces his greatest ever work and arguably some of the most visually repulsive and highly impressive gore effects of all time. It’s been dubbed a splatter classic but you’ll have to wait until the final third to really get down to the goods. Savini brings to life throat-rippings, disembowellings, heads being pulled off, skulls crushed and even features a remarkable scene in which a zombie is still alive on the operating table with its stomach and chest all missing. Sickening to some, way too realistic for others, the gore effects add the stamp to one of the most remarkable horror films of the 80s.

One last thing that I’ve come to appreciate in my time spent re-watching this is the soundtrack. Not as memorable as Goblin’s ominous set for Dawn of the Dead, John Harrison sticks to a traditional 80s-style score with some compelling tracks to drive the film when it needs it, most notably in the finale when the music kicks up a gear as the zombies break into the bunker.

 

Day of the Dead is just such a bleak, depressing and hopeless film which offers little hope for humanity. As thought-provoking and harrowing today as it was back in 1985, the film has finally begun to receive more widespread acclaim. Arguably the most underappreciated film in horror history, Day of the Dead is the ultimate post-apocalyptic masterpiece.

 

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