Thursday, September 5, 2013

DAY OF THE DEAD (1985) Blu-ray Review


Day of the Dead (1985) d. Romero, George A. (USA)

Following one of the biggest worldwide horror sensations was no easy feat for writer/director George A. Romero. When his sequel to Night of the Living Dead turned out to be as successful and arguably just as influential, one would think that finding backing for a third installment would be easy as falling off the proverbial log. But, lest we forget, Dawn of the Dead nearly didn’t find its way to the screening room, at least not without the threat of studio interference, until Italian horror icon Dario Argento and sibling Claudio stepped up with the bankroll. Long looked upon as the poor relation of the original trilogy, time and context (i.e. the even more divisive sequels that followed) have been kind to Day of the Dead, which has now earned its rightful place of respect and honor among its undead brethren.

Romero’s original script was to be much broader in scope and action, but budget limitations – a mere $3.5 million – forced him to scale down his vision. A happier accident there could not have been. While some viewers may be disappointed at this chapter’s darker, more contained view of the undead Armageddon, Day strikes the perfect note of finality in regards to the zombie plague and Man’s inability to put aside personal and petty differences, even in the face of the flesh-eating Other. The director continues his theme that, though the zombies are an undeniable threat, the real danger stems from the fact that the surviving humans bring about their own downfall through their inability to trust each other. My chief complaint regarding Romero’s Land of the Dead, aside from its general glossiness and magazine cover-ready cast, is that the humans seem far too energized, far too alive. The characters here are beaten, battered and terrified. A sense of dread and defeat permeates the film, of inevitability and clock-watching. Our time is over – we just won’t admit it.

Following a terrific nightmare sequence that Roger Avary describes on his DVD commentary as “Kubrickian, then paying tribute to Polanski by way of Cocteau,” Day opens with a helicopter landing in a deserted Florida town where zombies (and one lone random alligator) have taken up residence. Viewers get a terrific taste of the deliciously drippy technological advances that makeup/gore effects savant Tom Savini has developed in the eight years since Dawn’s blue-faced gutmunchers roamed the Monroeville Mall. 

A jawless undead with its tongue lolling freely is the centerpiece, and under this awe-inspiring visual, the film’s title reveals itself. It is perhaps a lucky twist of fate that the titular time-progression (following Night and Dawn) has led us to this apocalyptic heading, where the dead truly are having their day. Soon, we will see to what literal depths the human race has descended: Hiding in a hole in the ground (a converted mine shaft), praying for deliverance, despising their fellow man as much if not more than the walking corpses above. 

Although the walking dead outnumber the humans 400,000 to 1, Mankind has not united in the face of a common enemy. Instead the survivors have splintered further, with three distinct factions within the bunker: The scientists, the military (led with vein-popping fervor by Joe Pilato) and the non-partisan civilians, composed of the helicopter pilot John (Terry Alexander) and communications expert McDermott (Jarlath Conroy). While we see glimpses of emotional bonding between Sarah (Lori Cardille) and her male compatriots, the relationships are tenuous and guarded, in particular with her lover Miguel (Antonè DiLeo), who resents her for being strong in the face of his own weakness. Ironically, the film’s most memorable connection is that of Richard Liberty’s teetering-into-madness Dr. Logan (dubbed “Frankenstein” by the others) and his prize “pupil,” a captured zombie dubbed Bub, essayed with extraordinary sensitivity and skill by Howard Sherman.

Lacking the awesome action set-pieces and comic hijinks of Dawn, 1985 critics and audiences were quick to deride Romero’s dark, apocalyptic vision.  Savini’s jaw-dropping effects were universally recognized as astonishing high-water marks, but overall the film was deemed a failure. Roger Ebert complained that “Romero hasn’t figured out anything new to do with his ghouls,” and that the “mostly unpleasant, violent, insane” characters were impossible to relate to. But this is Romero’s pointed warning: that this is where the human race is headed unless we change our ways. Day’s quite literal bunker mentality also perfectly reflects the “me” decade during which the film was produced, where the focus was on “me and mine” as opposed to “we and ours.” Unpleasant? Violent? Insane? Yes, yes and yes. John and McDermott, who have tellingly hermited themselves away from the rest of the group in a converted Winnebago dubbed “the Ritz,” openly accuse humanity of mislaid priorities. 

Not a subtle filmmaker when it comes to messages, it is all too clear that Romero wants us to hear John’s condemnation as the voice of reason; because he places the words within the most articulate and even-keeled character, the overt soapboxing is not distasteful, nor does it ring false. After all, under the circumstances, these survivors have had plenty of time to reflect upon the state of the world, and deep, contemplative monologues do not seem incongruent in the least. It is also worth noting that John carries on the tradition of strong, sympathetic black heroes in Romero’s films.

If there is one aspect that remains difficult to defend, it is the oddly uplifting denouement where (*SPOILER*), after being grabbed by the undead hordes in the helicopter during the climactic escape (overtly echoing the Day’s opening sequence), Sarah awakens in a presumably zombie-free island paradise. It is a shocking jump cut, one that strains credibility and even smacks of sheer laziness on Romero’s part. The implication is that the escape was successful and that there is hope for humanity – by far the most positive conclusions of any of the filmmaker’s flesh-eating epics – but ironically, it is tacked onto his most depressing and nihilistic installment. Perhaps Romero did not want to leave audiences with a feeling of utter hopelessness, but his happy ending, as it stands, feels unearned.

Shout! Factory has given Day of the Dead the top shelf Blu-ray premiere it deserves, with eye-popping new cover art by Nathan Thomas Milliner. In addition to the two audio commentary tracks (Romero, Savini, Cardille and production designer Cletus Anderson on one, Avery solo on the other) from previous releases, there are photo galleries, trailers, TV spots, a 30-minute behind-the-scenes look at Savini at work, a promotional video for the Wampum Mines, and Cult Magazine's Ed Demko bidding a fond farewell to Skip Docchio, a retiring facility tech for the mines who was on site during filming.

But the shiny new jewel in the crown is Michael Felsher’s feature length documentary, The World’s End: The Making of Day of the Dead.  As with previous Red Shirt Productions supplements, Felsher does a terrific job of assembling major players for candid, insightful recollections and even longtime fans are sure to pick up some new intel here.  It does warrant mention that the documentary is a bit disjointed and episodic at times – one wonders if it mightn’t have better served its purpose by being broken down into smaller featurettes or at even chapters.  As it stands, we swing clumsily from discussing special effects to specific performances and back again.  But aficionados lining up for the hi-def treatment aren’t likely to care too much about dramatic arcs – they’ll happily take their trivia and tidbits rough and tumble. 

Day of the Dead debuts on Blu-ray September 17, and is available for pre-order now.

--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine


  1. It seems strange to me that I'm going to defend Day of the Dead's ending, given that I don't really like the movie, but I think you're misunderstanding the ending. The coda on the beach begins EXACTLY the same way the movie itself begins, with Sarah waking from a nightmare. Given Romero's cinematic literacy, I'm convinced that this is his version of the Moebius strip narrative structure of the original Dead of Night. The film recurves onto itself at this point and the zombie apocalypse starts again. I think this is just and fitting for a movie that's utterly nihilistic.

    1. I would love to believe that, but Romero intimates on the audio commentary that he wanted to show there was hope - that not all was lost. Personally, I've always tried to imagine that the ending is Sarah's last image of the happy ending that will never be (i.e. she dies), but Romero never makes that clear or even hints at it. It's just like *poof* magic. I like your interpretation, but I don't think it's Romero's true intention, as much as I wish I could convince myself that it is.