It’s always been a personal bugbear that George A. Romero’s (RIP) Day of the Dead (1985) is rarely as lauded as its forebears (1968’s Night of and 1978’s Dawn). Poor box-office returns, inadequate marketing and decidedly mixed reviews at the time saw Day unfairly labelled as an underwhelming climax to Romero’s classic zombie trilogy.
Yes, Night was revolutionary for the genre, independent filmmaking and African-American lead roles. And Dawn was a timely ‘splatstick’ satire on consumerism with many memorable locations and sequences. But for me Day tops them both. Tonally, it’s Romero’s angriest movie, dripping with savagely nihilistic dialogue from a re-written, pared-down script. Romero’s sweeping original vision for Day was curtailed due to budgetary limitations, and his angst is palpable. Not only is this fittingly brutish, claustrophobic tale of the self-destructive clash between the military and scientific communities a critique of American politics (one that’s more relevant than ever). It’s also a pointed metaphor for Romero’s career-long battle to keep creative control of his projects in the face of pressure from those holding the purse strings.
Driven underground in a bid to survive the zombie apocalypse, the motley crew of characters are the trilogy’s most compelling. Night had Ben (Duane Jones) and Dawn had its mall-dwelling quartet, but Day has the progressive, Ripley-esque Sarah (Lori Cardille), the mad scientist Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty), Joe Pilato’s scenery-chewing Captain Rhodes and, of course, Howard Sherman’s beautifully realised zombie, Bub.
Romero’s black-hearted narrative is also blessed with the career-defining work of legendary make-up and special effects maestro, Tom Savini. There are superbly executed and repulsively gory gut spills, head drills and eviscerations in Day. What’s more, Savini’s tutelage of Greg Nicotero (making his movie debut) paved the way for The Walking Dead’s own exemplary make-up and effects. Romero delivered a bleak and gruesome treat against a backdrop of clipped financial wings and a mentally/physically arduous location shoot. Romero said Day was his favourite among his zombie films; it’s mine too. Or is it just George and me?
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