The third instalment in George A. Romero’s zombie franchise, Day of the Dead was intended to be the Gone with the Wind of Romero’s filmography. However, the budget was cut from $7 million to $3.5 million due to all the blood and gore, as it was doubtful that the film would be allowed to get away with an R rating. The original script was significantly changed as a consequence, especially the ending, and Romero was ultimately unable to achieve his initial vision. But while Day of the Dead had the potential to be a genuinely epic zombie extravaganza, the finished movie is hard to dislike. When the budget was cut, Romero mainly chose to trim the character stuff, using most of the funds for the special effects. And oh boy, the result is something to behold, a vehemently old-school and insanely violent zombie movie with the most impressive make-up of its era.
The story picks up an unspecified time after Dawn of the Dead, and the situation has only become worse. For every living person on the planet, there are four hundred thousand walking dead. Day of the Dead finds a number of survivors gathered in a bunker in Florida where they live with military personnel. The science team led by Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty) are experimenting on zombies in the hope of finding a cure or another way to deal with the growing numbers. However, the militia, led by the rude and antagonistic Captain Rhodes (Joseph Pilato), are becoming impatient, and sanity levels are fast declining due to the confined space and ostensible lack of hope for the future.
While zombie films are usually fairly brainless, Romero’s Dead films are often cautionary fables regarding the malaises of contemporary society, and there’s a degree of satire. Night of the Living Dead concentrated on the social unrest of the civil rights movement and reflected the growing Cold War fear of invasion by foreign forces. Dawn satirised materialism, viewing crass commercialism as a mindless escape from reality and a new drug of choice. Romero conceived of his third zombie outing during Reagan’s term in office, hence he sets his sights on the military. It essentially plays out like a doomsday prediction of life in the not-too-distant future. Although Day has a brain at its core, it’s still driven by visceral bloodshed and gore, with Romero refusing to skimp on the nasty details that zombie enthusiasts want to see. The tone here is considerably darker than its predecessors, as the threat is not so much the walking dead but rather the humans inside the bomb shelter who begin to turn on one another. Night examined physical survival while Dawn looked at crumbling social structure, but Day is concerned with something graver: the soul. Romero posits that although some humans may be alive amid a zombie apocalypse, the undead still win if they destroy the soul of humanity.
Without a doubt, Day of the Dead is make-up artist Tom Savini’s artistic and occupational masterpiece. Savini is a long-time special effects champion, and he let his war-scarred imagination run wild here (he was a field photographer in Vietnam). As a result, the film is viciously gory and disturbing, with an incredibly unsettling attention to anatomical detail. Savini and his team were detail freaks, and they scrapped anything that did not look realistic enough. You may think you have seen gore, but Day of the Dead contains a man’s face being torn off by the eyelid, a head being cut in half with a shovel, and rotted fingers prying open living humans to pull out the gooey viscera inside. The zombies themselves look tremendous, too, showing signs of deterioration and decay. Some are missing limbs, and one is seen entirely cut open on an operation table. Romero’s direction is perfectly competent as well, driving the mayhem with a sure hand. If there’s something to be criticised, however, it’s the appalling score, which sounds highly out-dated. Romero’s epic vision needed a stronger musical accompaniment.
Despite the picture’s B-grade nature, the acting is fairly strong across the board. Most notable is Pilato, who’s intense as the borderline insane Captain Rhodes. Gary Howard Klar also warrants a mention; he’s over-the-top and fun as Steel, one of the soldiers. But perhaps the strongest performer here is Sherman Howard who plays Bub, a zombie in the process of becoming domesticated through scientific experiment. Howard looks like a brainless zombie at first glance, yet he also nails the role’s more complex nuances when confronted with mechanical devices. It’s a quality performance.
Due to the changes it underwent thanks to budget cuts, Day of the Dead is a polarising film that’s seen as either a fan favourite or a tragic missed opportunity. Although it’s certainly lamentable that Romero could not accomplish his original vision for a fierce, genuinely epic horror picture, Day of the Dead is great for what it is: another bold vision of the zombie apocalypse from Romero that’s creepy, frightening and unbelievably gory. It’s easy to fall in love with Romero’s ideas and Savini’s superlatively vivid special effects.