Review: Day of the Dead

Image courtesy of VHSWasteland.com
Directed by: George A. Romero
Category: Horror

Foolishly I have always considered this to be the weakest entry in Romero's "original" dead trilogy. I've always loved Dawn of the Dead the most growing up though. I think because in that film Romero had found the perfect balance of horror, dark humor and social commentary that to this day easily ranks as a fan favorite in the zombie genre. But it's funny how time and maturity changes your perspective on films. As a teenager I loved Dawn, but as an adult 26 years later (oh god has it been that long?!) with a much better appreciation of how films are made and just filmmaking in general, I've learned to really love this film more than Dawn

I think what surprised me most was how much I enjoyed this one this time around. Sure it's lost it's dark humor and social commentary, but as a dark and brooding film about a world where presumably only a handful of humans exist where zombies have taken over the world, it's a great study on human behavior set in a claustrophobic underground nuclear facility. George A. Romero's minimalistic direction gives the film an eerie and authentic feel not commonly found in a lot of horror film directors. Usually they prefer style over substance, but here Romero knows the importance of not overdoing it visually and letting the scenes and the story do it's thing. 

Bub the zombie

One of the elements that makes this film stand out from the rest in the original trilogy is the fact that a single zombie was given such a big role. I think most people will agree that the casting of Sherman Howard aka Howard Sherman as Bub the zombie was brilliant fucking casting. I don't think anybody else could have gotten the audience to feel as much sympathy for a zombie as we ultimately do for Bub. Three scenes in particular stand out more than any. The first is when Dr. Logan aka Frankenstein gives Bub an unloaded handgun to see if he knows what it is. After figuring out how to cock it he aims it directly at the asshole Captain Rhodes. Crazy stuff. The second is when Dr. Logan gives Bub a walkman and turns the music on. The look on Bub's face is priceless. The third and most important sequence would be when Bub, after breaking free of his restraints after the zombies have infiltrated the underground bunker, sees his beloved Dr. Logan dead on the floor after Capt. Asshole, er I mean Rhodes, blew him away out of frustration. Bub's look of excitement after seeing Dr. Logan on the floor which subsequently turns to sadness and then anger after realizing Dr. Logan is dead is both impressive and heartbreaking at the same time. I doubt anyone else under all that zombie makeup could have emulated so much emotion and sympathy through facial expressions as Howard does in this one scene.  I've seen Sherman Howard in everything from I Come in Peace to an episode of Seinfeld, but he will always be Bub the zombie to me.

A small band of military and scientists are all that seem left in the world after a zombie plague has infected mankind. Residing in an underground nuclear facility the scientists, with the help of the military, use zombies for experiments in what they hope will be a cure for the zombie virus. When the military realizes that the lead scientist, Dr. Logan, is not working on a cure but rather on trying to figure out how they "work" and even how to possibly train them to be servants, Capt. Rhodes kills the Dr. and banishes the rest into the caves where the zombies reside. Above ground a massive horde of zombies are kept away from the underground facility by a fence until a disheartened and psychotic Pvt. Salazar releases them and the zombies find there way underground. 

When initially released it made the least money of the three and unlike the first two installments was pretty trashed by critics and fans alike. Over the years though I think people have grown a better appreciation for Day of the Dead, I know I have. Watching it the other day it wasn't nearly as bad as I remember it being when I watched it countless times back in the 80's. In fact, it wasn't bad at all! It was just a different type of zombie film compared to it's predecessor. Yes the first half is extremely slow and not much other than a lot of arguing and yelling happens, but right at the halfway mark when the shit hits the fan it hit's it hard and we're left with easily one of the best zombie films ever made. That last hour is pure and total carnage as Pvt. Salazar unleashes the horde of zombies from above down into the underground nuclear facility and no matter how slow they are, the humans are clearly outnumbered. You couldn't ask for a better ending than this as every single bad guy get's it in spectacular fashion one by one. 

Also of importance in both this film and the world of special makeup effects in general is Master of Horror Effects Tom Savini. His amazing and flat out brilliant work in this film alone is legendary and at least in my eyes, unparalleled in the world of horror makeup. The shit he displays in this film is just simply amazing. He's done makeup work for dozens of films, most notably in the horror genre, but it's with this film and his brilliant work that he'll always be remembered for. If you've never seen Scream Greats (click the link for my review), a fascinating documentary on his life and work, I strongly recommend you do so. 

I loved the whole setup sequence in the very beginning of the film. They show a lifeless and abandoned city in Florida where Romero demonstrates the beauty and effectiveness of choosing simple but powerful shots to tell the story. Sarah, John and William are surveying the city from a helicopter as we're shown scenes of devastation and abandonment. They cautiously land and proceed to inspect the city until they realize they are not alone and the zombies are simply lying in wait. A very powerful and awesome opening sequence that sets up the film perfectly. One thing that stood out as I watched this opening sequence is how much it reminded me of Rugerro Deodato's Raiders of Atlantis. It looked like it could have been that film right down to the music and even the year it was made and I kept thinking to myself how fucking incredible it would have been if Romero had decided to make an over the top Exploitation flick with tons of action and gore in the mid 80's the way only 80's cinema could have produced it. Wouldn't that have been something?

Day of the Dead is a severely underrated film in the zombie genre. As excited as I was when Romero decided to get back into the zombie genre and start making more "Dead" films, Land of the Dead left me a little disappointed with all of it's CGI gore and effects. I know it's cheaper and easier to do it that way, but it loses so much of it's impact and realism. Diary of the Dead was a severe disappointment with it's POV shaky cam and documentary style of filmmaking. Oh man it drove me nuts. If you've read any of my past reviews, then you know how I "hate" shaky cam. And to be honest, after Diary I never even gave Survival of the Dead a shot. I just didn't want to be disappointed again with more CGI blood and shaky cam camerawork. But this is the tentpole Romero zombie film for me. Beautiful camera work and amazing "practical" physical effects. The way a zombie film should be made. 


  1. Great write-up! I have never seen this! Will to get right on it. Love practical effects. Also the VHS cover is really cool!

  2. Trust me, if you can get past the slow first half, you'll be handsomely rewarded with the awesomeness of the second. This is grade A 80's zombie filmmaking at it's best!