Day of the Dead (1985)


Director: George A. Romero

Starring: Lori Cardille, Joseph Pilato, Terry Alexander, Sherman Howard

Words – Oliver Innocent

Quite possibly the most revered independent horror film of all time, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) laid down the blueprint for a new wave of horror which took off and proliferated during the 1970s. Night differentiated itself from the horror movies of the past with its confrontational, explicitly violent subject matter which worked simultaneously as both straightforward shock machine and allegory for the state of contemporary Vietnam-era America.
The film struck a real chord with filmgoers and cash strapped yet creative filmmakers alike, ushering in a golden age of controversial, cutting-edge independent horrors; films like Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972), Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), David Cronenberg’s Shivers (1975), and John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) all followed Romero’s blueprint of a single location besieged by an unspeakable evil, while exploring the social and political problems plaguing America (or, in the case of Shivers, Canada) at the time, tackling taboo issues of sex and violence head on, and invariably ending on downbeat notes. Romero himself would return to the fray in the late ‘70s to reclaim his crown with arguably his most accomplished and popular film to date, the zombies in a shopping mall epic Dawn of the Dead (1978).

A follow up to Night, exploring how the zombie epidemic has spread in the intervening years, Dawn is nevertheless a very different beast. Looking to put a new spin of the zombie format and purposefully striving not to repeat himself, Dawn’s colourful comic book imagery and black comedy criticism of consumer culture is the antithesis of Night’s starkly serious monochrome nightmare. With its exuberant action stylings, infusion of comedy and splatter, and surprisingly upbeat ending, Dawn proved itself to be much more palatable and entertaining than the more nihilistic Night. Quickly establishing itself as something of a fan favourite, it is unsurprising that expectations were high when Romero finally returned to the series almost a decade later with Day of the Dead.
Upon release, Day was neither a hit with audiences or critics. Compared to the funhouse ride that was Dawn, it was simply too dark, too violent, too claustrophobic. In other words, it just wasn’t the film that everyone expected. In the decade when horror was beginning to have fun with the likes of Dan O’Bannon’s The Return of the Living Dead (1985) and Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985) leading the way, Day just seemed like too much of a downer.

Often viewed as the ugly stepchild of the original Dead trilogy, it is only recently that Day’s status as another Romero horror classic is beginning to become clear. Viewed in hindsight, Day reveals itself as something of an unsung gem, and in many ways it stands up a lot better today than either Night or Dawn.
For one, the effects are absolutely top-notch, gore maestro Tom Savini’s sickening, gut munching makeup being the best it’s ever been. It also boasts some of the most intense and outlandish characters Romero has ever committed to screen, the best of the bunch being the perpetually angry military dictator Captain Rhodes. There’s also Bub the Zombie, the first of Romero’s undead to be bestowed with a personality and a modicum of intellectual prowess. The underground mine setting is also highly effective, inciting a degree of boiling point tension surpassing even that of the farmhouse in Night. Another of Romero’s microcosms standing in for contemporary America, the mine crams together a diverse group of soldiers, scientists and civilians of different ethnicities and backgrounds, allowing for a vicious critique of Reagan Era race and military issues.

Apart from the inevitable conclusion of the dead overpowering the living, Day is perhaps Romero’s most unpredictable film. The director keeps the audience on their toes from the very beginning with one of the most unexpected, powerful jump scares in the history of horror cinema, ensuring the suspense remains high as you can never guess what’s coming round the next dankly lit corner.
While it’s true that Day does lack the ferocious originality of Night and Dawn (it is the third film in the series after all), its air of unpredictability, unsettling atmosphere, intense human conflicts, and tour de force Grand Guignol ensure the film isn’t a mere retread of familiar ground. On the contrary, Day is an impressive, original film in its own right, and a more than worthy addition to Romero’s Dead series that deserves to be rediscovered and re-evaluated, so it can finally stand proudly alongside its predecessors.

See our retrospective feature on Night of the Living Dead (1968) >here<.

See our retrospective feature on Dawn of the Dead (1978) >here<.