The third and initially final installment of the DEAD saga was and is an unusual change of pace. A grim, talky, but weirdly energetic and almost upbeat affair, the film turned off audiences and critics in its initial run only to become something of a cult item. Though possibly the weakest of the series, with more obvious flaws than the other entries, DAY OF THE DEAD has a strong story and atmosphere, reflecting writer/director Romero’s growing interest in building up a world around his zombies instead of focusing on the flesheating shenanigans.
The walking dead outnumber the living by 400,000 to 1. In an underground government facility located beneath the Florida Everglades, a slowly-dwindling group of scientists and soldiers work together to combat the zombie menace. Well, they do in theory; the military force, led by Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato) and consisting of the most macho, sexist, racist, and generally crude dregs of the army, is losing patience with scientists who still have no solution. While the chief surgeon Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty), known as “Frankenstein” by just about everyone else, has the army round up zombies for his experiments in trying to control the undead and tame their aggression, it falls to Sarah (Lori Cardille), a chemist, to try and keep the entire operation from falling apart. Her soldier boyfriend (Antoné DiLeo) is headed towards a nervous breakdown as a result of working endless shifts, and the most sensible people in the operation seem to be McDermott, an alcoholic radio operator (Jarlath Conroy), and John, a helicopter pilot (Terry Alexander), both of whom live in a trailer outside the complex’s safe zone and don’t believe that anything good is going to come of the project. Logan has been showing some progress with an unusually intelligent zombie named “Bub” (Howard Sherman), but there’s a question of just how stable the Doctor is, and how he intends to “reward” his subjects.
The film Romero planned to make and the one he made ended up being very different. The original script was a grand epic taking place on a tropical island, where a mad general had raised an army of trained zombies. However, the project was deemed too expensive- though both NIGHT and DAWN had been big hits, financiers would only put up the money if Romero could promise an R rating, which he ultimately couldn’t. So he settled for an unrated picture and a lower budget, crafting this smaller-scale apocalypse that could mostly be filmed in an underground cave complex. (The actors, who arrived at the set pre-dawn and left after dark, suffered Vitamin E deficiencies as a result of not seeing the sun for long stretches.) This is a smaller film than DAWN, and not nearly as action-oriented- there is, to be blunt, a lot of talk, and it’s actually a long while before we get to the first proper zombie attack (though the film does have a brilliant opening wherein the team takes a helicopter to scout out a city that is inhabited entirely by the walking dead.)
As a result, the film does seem aimless at times, and Romero’s dialogue and direction of the actors is not what you’d call realistic or understated. The soldiers are, as mentioned, near troglodytic in their machismo, and so slovenly and shiftless it’s hard to believe they passed basic training (though, to be fair, they’ve been living underground for several years and the end of civilization as we know it is bound to bring with it a certain lack of discipline.) McDermott, who is Irish (and drinks quite a bit) and John, who is Jamaican, both have very strong and likely faked accents, and in particular John, with his wise sayings and carefree attitude, comes dangerously close to the “Magic Negro” stereotype, though I’d argue that he gets enough depth in the end to avoid that. Pilato, playing Rhodes, gives what I’m just going to go ahead and call a Romero movie performance- over the top, to the point where it’s goofy and hard to believe at times, but completely appropriate to other moments- and he manages to improvise the PERFECT last line for his character, so I have to give him credit. (Pilato was also the Dean Martin impersonator at Jackrabbit Slims in PULP FICTION, for those who want to know.)
Of course, being comic-booky and exaggerated isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a horror movie, even a more dialogue-driven one; at least one critic spotted similarities to EC’s horror comics, and the film does have that feel- “blood and guts” is an appropriate descriptive phrase for the film in more ways than one. There’s even an element of political satire, as the military’s overriding jingoism seems to parallel the escalation of the Cold War and the return to “traditional values” heralded by the Reagan administration, and of course nuclear anxiety is also mirrored in the weary, nihilistic attitudes of John and McDermott, who are about ready to give up on the whole Western civilization thing and try to escape to an island somewhere. The conflict between basically three separate factions (one could even split it further, arguing that Logan is an entity unto himself) does provide a driving force for the film even when the zombies stay in the background.
Of course, the undead do come out to play in the end, and the climax of the picture features a richly satisfying zombie rampage, with makeup and gore effects once again by Tom Savini; one improvement from DAWN is that we no longer have “zombies” who are simply people with facepaint, and all the hordes of ghouls do look pretty realistic. On the human side, the acting is mostly energetic- Cardille, the daughter of Bill “Chilly Billy” Cardille, who played a reporter in NIGHT, is intense and believable throughout, and there’s something enjoyable in everyone’s performance. The best work, though, comes from Richard Liberty as Logan, who tweaks the mad scientist angle just a little to make his character disarmingly eloquent, soft-spoken, and likable. Sherman’s Bub is a masterpiece of purely physical acting (ironically, the actor has since become mostly known for voiceover work.) Finally, I’d be remiss in talking about this film without praising the lush, Carribean-tinged score by John Harrison (who would later become a director in his own right- his credits include the DUNE miniseries.) This was actually the first film in the series not to include cheap “library” music as part of the soundtrack (NIGHT used it entirely, while DAWN alternated the needle-drop material with an original score by Dario Argento’s Goblin), and it adds an interesting kind of energy to the grim proceedings.
DAY OF THE DEAD is a movie with some obvious problems- it’s not quite as keen and relentless as the first two movies- but it has an undeniable charm to it. It’s a genuinely original horror story, rendered with bloody enthusiasm and more than a little wit to it. If it wasn’t really satisfying as the finale of the series (and the 2-disc DVD set contains a DVD-ROM version of the original unfilmed script), well, time would take care of that.
Written and Directed by George A. Romero