1985's "Day of the Dead" was the final entry in George A. Romero's 'Living Dead Trilogy', following on the heels of the 1968 classic "Night of the Living Dead" and its action-packed sequel "Dawn of the Dead". Though "Day of the Dead" boasted the most impressive-looking zombies, thanks to a bigger special effects budget and make-up effects artist Tom Savini's continued efforts in building state-of-the-art living dead, it is the least successful of the franchise. And the blame falls solely on the weak writing and performances that do little but offer the audience unlikable characters and a ridiculous plot.
In the first film, the plot centered on a group of individuals who found themselves trapped in a farmhouse at the start of the zombie infestation. The second film looked at events further on down the line, with the protagonists escaping the last gasps of civilization as attempts to fight the living dead epidemic ended in failure. In "Day of the Dead", most of humanity has been wiped out, and it is estimated that the zombies outnumber humanity 400,000 to 1. One small contingent of 12 human beings, perhaps the only ones left alive in the world, are hunkered down in a military bunker in Florida, where they attempt to turn the tide by conducting detailed research on the living dead. The bunker also serves as a vessel for preserving the accomplishments of humanity, in the form of archives of old movies and tax records.
I'll set us down. But I'll keep my seat and I'll keep the engine running. Now the first sign of trouble, I'm going up. You ain't on board when that happens, you're liable to have a lousy afternoon.
The film starts off strongly enough, with an impressive opening scene in which a helicopter touches down in a deserted city to search for survivors. Though the city is essentially a ghost town, with no signs of life anywhere, a din, comprising of haunting moans, rises out of the silence as the undead, sensing the arrival of fresh 'food', pour into the streets. Scientist Sarah (Lori Cardille), sensing that there are no more survivors to be found, instructs her pilot John (Terry Alexander, seen recently in "Gloria") to return to base.
Maybe if we tried working together we could ease some of the tensions. We're all pulling in different directions. That's the trouble with the world, Sarah darlin'. People got different ideas concernin' what they want out of life.
This is where the film begins its gradual descent into mediocrity, from which it never recovers. Upon return to the underground base, we learn that the mood is tense between the scientists and the military. The scientists are trying to find a 'cure' to the zombie problem, which involves conducting various experiments on the zombies they keep in captivity in some abandoned salt mines. Unfortunately, the eccentric head scientist Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty), has some strange ideas of his own, which includes trying to teach the zombies how to act civilized. Meanwhile, the military, headed by the crazed Captain Rhodes ("Dawn of the Dead" alumnus Joseph Pilato), wants results, and grow increasingly impatient with the lack of progress, eventually using threats of violence against the civilian contingent. As in the previous films, it is the infighting and bickering between the humans that eventually hasten their downfall, allowing the zombies to overrun the compound in the film's climax.
You want me to salute that pile of walking pus? Salute my ass!
Unfortunately, the film's first hour, with the exception of the stunning opening sequence, is uninteresting, as it is filled with pointless banter between the characters, interspersed with posturing remarks. On the one hand, the goals behind the research projects that the scientists are pursuing are questionable at best, and it is difficult to sympathize with their efforts considering that their chief scientist is trying to 'domesticate' a zombie named 'Bub' (Sherman Howard) with telephones and tape recorders. Similarly, the military men in the film are unlikable for arrogance and the contempt that they show for any of the other characters outside their close-knit circle. And it doesn't help that the actors attack their roles with gusto backed by amateur technique, making the already hokey dialogue even more grating. Thus, with virtually no characters to root for (or at least hold the audience's interest), it's not surprising that the film's first hour is painful to watch.
Fortunately, the pace picks up slightly when the zombies start overrunning the compound, and the impressive make-up effects become the film's only saving grace. In the previous two entries, extras were transformed into the undead with merely a dab of purple make-up, tattered clothes, and a few well-placed bloodstains. However, in "Day of the Dead", Tom Savini goes full-throttle with prosthetics and assorted up-market effects, creating not only the most convincing-looking zombies, but some of the goriest scenes ever committed to film as the characters gradually succumb to the feasting of the undead. If "Day of the Dead" will ever be remembered for anything, this would be it.
I got an alternative, yeah, yeah, I got an alternative. Let's get in that old whirly-bird, find us an island some place, get juiced up and spend what time we got left soakin' up some sunshine! How's that?
It would be a shame for such an intriguing horror franchise to end on the low note of "Day of the Dead", the last 'living dead' film that Romero directed. Since 1985, Romero has directed only two more films, "The Dark Half", and also "The Bruiser", set for release sometime this year, neither of them related to the genre that he helped define. Though he did write the screenplay for the unnecessary remake of "Night of the Living Dead" in 1990, his make-up effects man Savini was behind the camera, and did an adequate job. There has also been talk of Romero adding another entry to his iconic film franchise, entitled "Dusk of the Dead", as well as a television series taking place in the 'living dead' universe, yet little progress has been made over the years. Romero was also briefly attached to a film based on the best-selling "Resident Evil" video game series, though he was quickly fired after turning in a less-than-stellar script.
Perhaps Romero will vindicate himself one day by offering his fans a truly stunning conclusion to his franchise that will recapture the elements that made the first two films so compelling-- but for now, the disappointing "Day of the Dead" will have to suffice.