The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Fright Week: An Argument for Romero’s Day of the Dead

Written by: Alejandro Rodriguez, Special to CC2K


The Darkest Day of Horror the World Has Ever Seen

Released in 1985, Day of the Dead was meant to be the final movie in George A. Romero’s DEAD series. Originally his vision was much grander in scale, but with the low budget he was given he had to scale things back. (Some of his ideas went into Land of the Dead) When it first came out critics and fans didn’t take to kindly to it, feeling it paled in comparison to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. However, as the years passed more and more fans began to appreciate it for the amazing film that it is.

Day of the Dead is so amazing that it’s actually the best from the entire Dead series. It’s taken some time, for people to finally come around, but it has slowly begun to gain more appreciation through the years. Like the zombies that are in the film, Day of the Dead slowly rose up and became stronger than ever.

“You must listen to me captain! You must listen!”

When I first viewed Day of the Dead about half a decade ago I was in no way impressed. What had happened to the fun like in Dawn of the Dead? Everyone was so angry and pissed off in the film that it was hard to feel any sympathy for them. And what was that shit with that zombie learning things from his past? That’s stupid! Doesn’t George A. Romero even follow his own continuity? 

It wasn’t just me who felt this way; critics and fans didn’t enjoy it much when the film first came out. Most complaints were concerned around the acting, music, cynicism in the film and Bub the zombie. Like me, they didn’t quite understand what Romero was going for at first. 

To say the least I did not enjoy the film the same way I did with Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. However, I love those movies and many of Romero’s other films like Monkey Shines, The Crazies, Martin, and Creepshow. So it didn’t really matter to me in the end. All great directors screw up once in a while, Romero is no different.

It had been about four years since I decided to give Day of the Dead another try. It was on sale on Blu-ray and I already owned Dawn of the Dead on Blu-Ray, so why not give it a second chance? I remembered that I did love the copious amount of gore in the film and Blu-ray would make the blood bath look even better than when I saw it on DVD. For $10, why not?

Upon viewing it a second time it finally made more sense to me. Everything that I had been complaining about for years was nothing more than an angry fanboy who felt betrayed by one of his favorite directors. I finally accepted Romero’s vision and through that Day of the Dead finally became my favorite movie in Romero’s DEAD series.

“What the fuck is wrong with you people? They’re dead! They’re fuckin’ dead!”

Let’s start from where my hatred for this film originally grew, Bub the zombie (Sherman Howard). I was brought up all my life to view zombies in a certain way. They’re brainless and have only one goal in life, eat the flesh of humans. It’s that easy! Why change that at all? At first I thought it was just a way for Romero to tack on an extra storyline to the movie, but after re-watching Day of the Dead I realized something, they always remembered.

In Dawn of the Dead the zombies returned to the mall over and over again because that’s what they did in their lives. Why do the zombies approach their loved ones with so much vigor when usually they’re too incompetent to even walk across the street without falling down? They’re dead, that much is true, but there is something that makes them remember and forces them to continue to try to live their lives as if nothing has changed. (Except for that whole flesh eating thing.)

Watching Bub slowly remember things from his life seemed off putting at first, but watching it again is like watching a child grow up. Slowly Bub remembers shaving, reading a book, holding a gun, saluting military personnel and discovering the beauty of music. When Bub first puts on the headphones and listens to Beethoven it’s astounding, you can see the sense of wonderment on his face and he no longer is just another one of the many undead.

While a lot of things about Day of the Dead are amazing, I think it’s Howard’s performance as Bub that is especially remarkable. He is able to make a zombie look sympathetic in comparison to every other zombie before him and even after him. Without his performance I wouldn’t have been able to fully comprehend what Romero was trying to say with Day of the Dead. I would say his performance is kind of like being a mime that could only grunt and moan. He gets so much across the film by with no dialogue and by only reacting to what is going on around him.

“I’m running this monkey farm now Frankenstein and I wanna know what the fuck you’re doing with my time!”

The acting in Day of the Dead often gets a bum rap because of how loud and over the top some of the characters are. While it may be off putting at first, I don’t think that the acting in the film is bad at all. In fact, I think the actors do a magnificent job when portraying the characters well with the circumstances that are happening in the story. If you spent the majority of your time underground, rarely saw sunlight and had people dying around you left and right, don’t you think that you would start to get a little on edge?

A lot of the overacting in the film comes from Pvt. Steele (Gary Howard Klar) and Pvt. Rickles (Ralph Marrero). They can become really annoying, but the way I see it they’re like the dickhead jocks that you knew in High School that would annoy anyone who they perceived as weak. The characters are already annoying, but take into account the fact that they’re starting to crack up under the pressure and suddenly it makes a lot more sense. They were already alpha-male dicks before, but with the power they begin to wield around the base, they start to abuse it to screw with people. Thinking it over, they’re kind of the Beavis and Butt-Head of the movie.

Captain Rhoads (Joseph Pilato) does his own bit of over the top acting, but he’s justified in the role. Having been recently bumped up to the one in charge he has to take on the responsibility that his predecessor left before he died. Everything is on his shoulders and he’s not ready for the job, but he has to take it anyway. Instilling fear on those beneath him is the only way he knows how to control people, but he came into the job when people were already getting tired of their situation. Instead of banding them together he is slowly pushing everyone apart. 

Pilato does a stupendous job as Captain Rhoads. His acting builds a lot of the suspense of the film and he legitimately makes you feel scared for the protagonists. It’s rare when the humans in a horror movie are scarier than the actual movie monsters, but Pilato pulls it off nicely. He even had to overcome the smell of actual rotting guts when he worked with the effects team for his gruesome death scene. That is dedication to the craft. 

Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty) also does some great acting while being a little over the top. He’s the Frankenstein of the feature and while it may seem like he’s not helping the cause at first, if you follow his work eventually you’ll come to recognize that he is thinking outside the box when it comes to stopping the zombies. However, some people just can’t appreciate his scientific work.

Liberty portrays Logan as a mad doctor, which isn’t all that new for horror movies, but it never seems like it’s old cliché material. Liberty makes Logan look like he hasn’t slept or shaved for days and this really helps make Logan feel like a real mad scientist. Not one who wants to rule the world or hurt people, but someone who can’t stay away from their work for to long and obsesses over it.

“Listen to this.”

There is a lot of hate for the music in this Day of the Dead. After Goblin gave an amazing score in Dawn of the Dead, it does seem like kind of a let down. The music doesn’t feel that serious and almost has a tropical sense to it. It’s not bad, but it does seem like kind of a step down from the music in Dawn of the Dead.

The music does begin to grow on you after a while. The synthesizer does work to build the suspense building up to zombie and death scenes in the movie. I don’t understand all the hate it gets though. There are a lot of movies that have great scores that use synthesizers. John Carpenter’s The Thing and Halloween are shining examples of good synthesizer in horror movies, but since John Harrison added tunes that sounded somewhat tropical it can feel out of place from time to time. 

It’s a fine enough twist on what you would usually hear in a horror movie and the tropical music does a nice job of contrasting with what is happening on screen. I can understand why it may irk people who see the movie for the first time and casual fans of horror, but give it enough time and it begins to grow on you.

“You want me to salute that pile of walking pus? Salute my ass!”

While Dawn of the Dead dealt with consumerism and Night of the Living Dead dealt with racism, Day of the Dead deals with the militarism and cynicism that came from the Reagan era. Romero was fed up with what was going on in America at the time and used this as his way to comment on what was going on. If you notice, the zombies never kill any of the scientist or miscellaneous workers in the underground base, only military personnel.

Of the original dead trilogy, Day of the Dead is probably the easiest to read when it comes to the social commentary. The idea of racism and consumerism takes some time to really comprehend, but it’s much easier to understand what Romero is trying to say in Day of the Dead. I’m not sure if it being easier to understand is a good thing or bad thing for people, because I think some people believe that it might have been too lazy. However, Romero did such a great job that it never comes off as lazy.

Over 25 years since Day of the Dead came out and it’s commentary is just as strong as ever. America has continued to use their militaristic strength to get what they want. It would seem that Romero’s nightmare is slowly coming true. 

“Choke on ‘em!”

The one thing that makes Day of the Dead stand out above the other movies in the series is the wondrous amount of gore throughout the movie. Even fans of the DEAD series that don’t like Day of the Dead usually appreciate the work and detail that went into the make up and effects. Day of the Dead seriously has some of the best death scenes to ever be filmed.

Tom Savini, who also worked on Dawn of the Dead, outshines himself in the movie. I would even go so far to say that this is his best work. With a bigger budget and bigger ideas Savini was free to push the boundaries of make up and gore. Seeing the movie now just makes you appreciate the hard work that went into it more than ever. 

People get ripped open, torn apart and even have their heads ripped off, but it never seems like it’s fake. I mean it’s obviously fake, but when you watch it, it looks so good that it makes you wonder how they did it. It’s so well done that you eventually want to find out how Savini did it.

The make-up in the film is also great. Gone are the blue skinned zombies from Dawn of the Dead (For the most part that is). The zombies in Day of the Dead are much better; they finally look like they’re decomposing. Savini makes it look like time has actually passed since these people died and it’s much more terrifying than ever before.

CGI can’t pull off the same look that filming the act right in front of the camera can. CGI just looks too unreal; there is no sense of realism that comes with work done on computers. It’s sad that these make-up effects are a dying art, you would think with so many horror fans begging to have it come back that studios would be convinced to do it again, but no. Computer animation is just a more cost effective avenue. (The Evil Dead remake did do a great job of mixing practical and computer effects though.)

“I know you’re strong, all right, so what? Stronger than me, stronger than everyone, so what? So fucking what?”

One of the best things that Romero does in Day of the Dead is change up the usual role that women play in horror movies, including his own. Usually women are portrayed as being weak and not able to handle what is going on in the movie. However, movies like Halloween and the Alien series also show women staying strong under horrific conditions. Yet Romero’s previous DEAD movies portrayed the women as bumbling and frail.

Barbara (Judith O’Dea) from Night of the Living Dead and Francine Parker (Gaylen Ross) from Dawn of the Dead are both portrayed in the usual horror movie starlet fashion. They fall down during the worst times, they freeze up and become mute because they’re too scared to do anything, it’s really something that brings down the old movies.

I don’t know if Romero was trying to apologize for Barbara and Francine with Sarah (Lori Cardille), but he does a magnificent job of making her a stronger and more competent character. Not only is she the lead role in the movie, but she’s also the only one who is trying to help the different factions of the underground base work together.

There is also a reversal of roles that you rarely see in film where the woman (Sarah) has to calm down the man (Miguel Salazar, played by Anthony Dileo Jr.) after he be begins to crack under the pressure. It seemed so foreign at the time, but it shows that a woman can stay strong even during hectic events.

If this was Romero trying to say he was sorry for having his female characters being throwaway characters from his previous films, then he did a great job. Sarah is one of the best female characters in horror history.

“Is that food enough for you?”

It took some time for Day of the Dead to be appreciated by me, but I’m happy that I finally got to recognize it for the great film that it is. The acting is great, especially from Cardille, Pilato, Howard and Liberty. Their performances keep you invested in the story and help what is an already great film become even better. 

It’s not just the acting that makes Day of the Dead stand above it peers. The cynical mood, the gore, and the atmosphere all make it something special when compared to other movies in the genre. If you’re reading this and haven’t seen the movie yet, pick it up and give it a try. You won’t be disappointed.