DAY OF THE DEAD (1985)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 41 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Directed by: George A. Romero

Written by: George A. Romero

Starring: Lori Cardille, Joseph Pilato, Terry Alexander, Jarlath Conroy, Anthony Dileo Jr., Richard Liberty, Sherman Howard & John Amplas

After forever changing horror cinema with his groundbreaking NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and then creating one of the best zombie films ever with DAWN OF THE DEAD, George A. Romero decided to conclude his original DEAD trilogy with DAY OF THE DEAD. When it was originally released in 1985, DAY OF THE DEAD didn’t receive the warm welcome that greeted both NIGHT and DAWN. The film garnered mixed reviews from critics and fans generally considered it to the weakest in the DEAD saga. Despite its “lesser” reputation, DAY OF THE DEAD is dark, shocking, and contains just as much power as the first two DEAD films. DAY also provides a natural progression of Romero’s undead universe and has held up remarkably well as a compelling nightmare.

DAY takes place long after the zombie outbreak. The walking dead have overrun the entire world, but small bands of survivors remain. A group of these survivors are living in an underground base. Half of the group are scientists working on a possible solution to the zombies and the other half are heavily-armed soldiers assigned to protect the scientists. When headstrong Captain Rhodes (Joseph Pilato) takes command as a new leader, tensions between the soldiers and scientists rise to dangerously high levels. As the base threatens to tear itself apart from within, an ever-growing pack of zombies gathers outside and mad scientist Dr. “Frankenstein” Logan (Richard Liberty) makes surprising breakthroughs with an undead test subject.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is easily the most frightening installment of Romero’s trilogy, DAWN OF THE DEAD is often cited as the best, and DAY OF THE DEAD is easily the darkest of the bunch. The third DEAD film capitalizes on two major themes that were prevalent in the previous two installments: the zombies are a disturbing representation of society itself and humans are the real monsters in a deadly crisis. DAY OF THE DEAD follows the collapse of a band of survivors that could easily have great lives if they all saw eye-to-eye and simply cooperated with each other, but these people refuse to respect or listen to an opposing opinion and things escalate ridiculously fast. It’s scary how relevant DAY remains in our modern times and it will likely always be relevant in one way or another.

With my description of the plot and overall tone, it shouldn’t be surprising that a lot of characters are flat-out unlikable. However, that doesn’t make them any less fun to watch. Lori Cardille plays stubborn Sarah Bowman, the main protagonist who seems like a bit of a one-note hard-ass for a while and then later becomes a great character as her more emotionally broken side comes out. Jarlath Conroy and Terry Alexander play the only other likable living characters as an drunkenly charming radio operator and a stoned helicopter pilot who spouts words of wisdom. An early scene between Alexander’s “slacker” reveals deep truths about the apocalypse (in any given scenario) and helps put a great deal of things into perspective.

On the villainous side of things, Joseph Pilato plays the DEAD mythology’s biggest scumbag in Rhodes. Pilato’s baddie is easily one of the best antagonists in zombie movie history. Rhodes’ motivations and gripes with other characters are completely understandable and borderline sympathetic, but his brutal tactics of enforcing commands make him into a sick son-of-a-bitch. Every time this character is on the screen, you’ll either find yourself on the edge of your seat or shifting uncomfortably as you wonder what he’ll do next (as he seems capable of committing all sorts of monstrous deeds). Anthony Dileo Jr. is believable as a cowardly private who’s being pushed to his limits, while Gary Howard seems almost too convincing as Rhodes lecherous second-in-command. On a side note, Richard Liberty is utterly bonkers as Dr. “Frankenstein” and that helps his already cartoony character.

The film’s biggest stand-out performance isn’t from a human character though, because it comes from Sherman Howard as Bub the Zombie. Bub is sure to win over viewers, especially as Howard’s dialogue-free performance sells the viewer on this flesh-eating corpse having emotions. Romero was treading potentially cheesy waters with Bub’s story arc (as intelligent zombies might come off as less scary or laughably corny). He stuck the landing perfectly though as Bub pretty much steals the entire show. It’s also interesting to note that Bub’s role in DAY cemented the foundation for the zombies’ story arc in LAND OF THE DEAD (which arrived two decades after DAY’s release).

As far as the carnage and gore goes, DAY seems surprisingly restrained for the first two-thirds as the guts are mostly reserved for the science experiments and zombie wrangling. Tom Savini and at-the-time-newcomer Gregory Nicotero (who was three years away from founding KNB EFX Group) finally unleash balls-to-the-wall splattery spectacle in the hellishly awesome final third. Guts fall out of bodies, throats are torn (including a voice box being ripped from a screaming victim in the film’s most cringe-inducing scene), and the best death is saved for last. You’ll know it when you see it and horror fanatics will bask in its gory glory. This unforgettable death scene is probably the greatest kill in zombie history and I’m not being hyperbolic when I make that claim either.

My sole complaint with DAY OF THE DEAD comes from something that no other DEAD film has: nightmare sequences. There are two dream sequences in DAY. The first one (near the opening) serves as a big jolt, albeit a cheap one. The second nightmare arrives near the end and it feels like a cop-out. Sure, it leads to arguably the most pleasant final shot in all of the DEAD series, but it’s an eye-rollingly lame jump scare. This is a minor nitpick when everything else in DAY OF THE DEAD is stellar. If you’re a fan of zombie movies, you owe it to yourself to check this one out. DAY OF THE DEAD is one of the best zombie movies ever made, but that’s not surprisingly when you consider that it came from the master himself.

Grade: A

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