DAY OF THE DEAD: The Romero Movie Everyone Says They Like Even If No One Else Does

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The zombie apocalypse has come. A group of scientists and military hide out in an underground outpost, arguing. Meanwhile, the chief scientist works with one prisoner zombie to try to communicate and even civilize him. As the population of the outpost dwindles, Sarah, one of the scientists and the only woman in the group, sees her lover succumbing to wounds and the rest of the group getting more and more stir crazy. The pressures come to a head, and the zombies get inside.

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One reason I think DAY OF THE DEAD was greeted with less enthusiasm than it deserved is that it didn’t up the stakes in a way comparable to DAWN OF THE DEAD compared to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Night showed some zombies in a rural landscape; Dawn showed a city, the countryside and a mall. So Day should show us the whole country overrun with armies of the eating dead. Instead, Romero went the other way, putting a few people in a pressure-cooker, with a few glimpses comparable to scenes in Dawn.

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I first saw DotD so long ago that I can’t remember my reaction on seeing it the first time. I think I was a little bored with it and thought it needed more zombie action, less squabbling among the scientists and soldiers. Dawn of the Dead was popular at the time, but it had not reached the level of popularity with which it’s regarded now. Day sort of came and went, not even making as big a splash as a simple horror movie. It was not bloody enough for the Fangoria crowd, even though even then Tom Savini’s makeup work was recognized as being a huge accomplishment. It also didn’t have enough satire for the Village Voice crowd that so loved Dawn’s trashing of consumer culture. Over the years, Day’s reputation has improved. No longer considered the Return of the Jedi of the trilogy, it now takes its place with the two that came before it.

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One reason Day is better-regarded now might be the quality of the Romero zombie films that followed. LAND, DIARY and COLD ISLAND OF IRISH PEOPLE OFF THE EAST COAST would be laughed at if some joker changed the credits to read “Directed by Paul Anderson”. They have a few good moments but the dialogue and performances are ScyFy-level adequate. Romero doesn’t get enough credit for crafting several of the most original characters in American horror films, a genre populated by colorful clichés and stereotypes. Dennis Hopper’s caricature of rich white evil is a big comedown from Karl Hardman’s sweaty, bad, but also correct Bad White Dude, for example. Duane Jones in Night and Ken Foree in Dawn are interesting people, not just the people on the screen we’ve been told are the good guys. Lori Cardille’s Sarah deserves to be celebrated along with Ripley and Sarah Connor in the Genre Woman Hall of Fame. She isn’t like those two, she’s someone different, not a wimp but a humane scientist who is simply worn down. Arriving on the screen between Sarah Connor and Ripley, she deserves more credit as a strong woman who isn’t a soldier; she can handle a gun if she has to, but she’s not Rambo’s sister. I like Ripley as much as anyone else, but compare what the script of ALIENS has her doing and imagine Sarah in Day suddenly taking command of the military slobs here and you see the gap between the two views of women. Ripley is a man’s idea of a tough woman, while Sarah is someone you could imagine meeting at the store.

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It’s the most balanced of Romero’s zombie flicks. We see how everyone gets along with everyone else, and how even the alliances are not movie-simple. Sarah wants to trust the helicopter pilots, for example, but can she? Joe Pilato chews up the scenery (imagine dropping him into Aliens), but like Bub the zombie and Richard Liberty’s mad scientist, he brings great energy to what is a horror flick. Try to imagine Day without those three. Now wake up.

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Day is grim going. The unspoken reality that the human race is done is either denied or stoically accepted, but the evidence is too strong for a viewer to have any hope. Romero’s response to Night’s famously bleak ending is to end the two follow-ups with relatively hopeful endings. I think changing Dawn’s ending is ultimately pointless. Romero liked the characters, which is exactly why killing them would have a huge impact, especially when Gaylen Ross’ character was meant to end up pregnant and walking into helicopter blades. The ending would have been a very different gut-punch compared to Night–after so much time laughing at the zombies’ consumerist hijinks it might have been more harrowing. Alas. Day’s ending is as traditional as you can get, with the Good Gal and Good Outsiders escaping to paradise. Eh.

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The movie alternates the grimness of the installation with the attitude of Terry Alexander’s John, who pontificates about how the human race effed up but they should get over it and head to an island. Howard Sherman’s Bub adds a unique, warped tone in his scenes. The fourth leg–the zombies–are where the movie stumbles a little. Most of the zombies we see between the opening and the climax are penned up or cut up in a lab, so only at the very end do we get the rampaging zombies as an active, massed threat. Savini’s incredible work keeps topping itself, from a jaw-less zombie in the opening, various dissected corpses, a head capable of reacting to stimuli, and the bloody endings of most of the characters. John Harrison’s score has a bubbling quality that is refreshing for a zombie movie. The more expected, thumping drum-machine material doesn’t hold up, but I never liked that shit. It’s not a doomy score, it’s more withdrawn from the action, reflecting the resignation and acceptance that this is the way the world is now. The music seems aimed at the final moments on the island, as if the whole movie is a record of Sarah’s reflections about how she and her two companions got there.

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Dawn of the Dead has uneven makeup and dated satire, but it’s still a good movie. Day of the Dead is even better.

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