An appreciation page for the last cinematic Romero dead project..so far. Day of the Dead was the third and final chapter to the cultish Living Dead trilogy that began in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead...that world famous, low-budget, black and white indie directed and co-written by George A. Romero. Many have seen and heard plenty on it so I won't get into it here. I will just say that it reinvented the zombie and changed the face of horror forever. It has everything a classic horror flick should have although it has become somewhat dated and ineffectual to some of today's audiences' sensibilities.
1979's Dawn of the Dead has a following eclipsing its precursor and it too was a success on many levels. First it was made on $1 million and raked in $50 million at the box office. It was shot primarily in a shopping mall in Monroeville (outskirts of Pittsburgh). Its strengths are likeable characters, atmospheric and original music by Italian rockers Goblin, and satiric black humor. An undeniable weakness is the early assembly-line style zombie makeup by Tom Savini. The zombies are just as important as the story but due to budget and time Tom was forced to paint 90% of the extras blue-grey and dashed with blood that looked like bright red paint. But the extreme gore and apocalyptic adventure made it an instant cult classic and tested the limits of the MPAA who threatened an X rating- prompting the producers to release it unrated to avoid pornographic connotations. It was a huge success in the European markets like Night was, creating such rip-offs like City of the Walking Dead, Revenge of the Dead, Lucio Fulci's Zombie, Gates of Hell and House By the Cemetery.
In 1983, a music video came out that utilized the talents of makeup artist Rick Baker. It was for Michael Jackson's "Thriller". This set new standards in zombie makeup and since Day was the next project for Romero and Savini after Creepshow (1982), they had to abide by the new rules. The dead had to be horribly mutilated and decayed this time for sure. No one was ready for grey paint.
The expectations were high, and horror fans all over the world anticipated more breakthrough gore special effects. And they got it. But some went home displeased...they thought it was inferior to Dawn. They believed the elements that shocked them in 1979 though done more convincingly in 1985, were kind of ineffective. Some complained of a weak storyline and too much talk, not enough nonstop action or likeable characters. These elements add to the nightmarish vision in my opinion and people should realize that the survivors of a crisis like this would likely not be the nicest bunch. They would likely be extremists (explaining some over-the-top performances). One thing Romero had been criticized about Dawn was that "too much monster was shown" (unlike its contemporary Alien). So Romero held off and tried to give us just enough in Day, even trying to make us sympathize with their plight before the finale.
The belief by some audiences that they were
going to see grey ghouls again may have hurt its box office receipts. Maybe the notorious
Romero brandname on the film scared them off. That Day was unrated certainly
contributed. A more humorous and traditional zombie tale based on a novel by John Russo-The Return of the Living
Dead hurt it more than anything as it was backed by a major studio
(Orion Pictures). Day was unevenly distributed by United Film Distribution Co. (a
subsidiary of United Artists) through the summer and fall of 1985. The box office draws
started promising in the first weekend ($825,000 -- #3 under Cocoon and Back To
the Future).Then again Return was doing well
initially and then both just fell out of the Top Ten. Critics usually do not influence
movie patrons so the split votes on Day and Return weren't responsible
for their lackluster business. I believe the very nature of the films is the culprit...
and also timing. Both films did wonderful a year later on home video (and Return did great
on cable). Not to mention 1985 was the year of the actual return of
the living dead in cinema. They were really taking over the big screen in films like Supernaturals,
Re-Animator, Lifeforce, Ghoulies and Warning Sign. Maybe people said enough
of the living dead already!
George Romero reflected the decade in each film of the trilogy and each is concerned with various themes. If Night was traditional, filmed in shadowy black and white, and Dawn was concerned with consumerism and filmed in pasty Technicolor in an exaggerated style, Day goes back to Romero's roots, recalling 1950's sci-fi/horror pics metaphorically symbolizing nuclear threat. The title alone sounds like a literal celebration of the living dead. It even shares its name with a Mexican holiday.
Since the dead have been dead longer in this one, the zombies are more gruesome than ever-their flesh decaying in the hot Florida sun. They've become more aggressive and smarter. FX wiz Tom Savini employed an incredible crew that would later form the one of the industry's leading effects groups. Savini and Romero's work reached a zenith earning them awards at the French Scifi and Horror Exposition in 1986. An award should have gone to the score by John Harrison which was far different from what one would expect for a horror movie (especially one of this nature). It was, like Creepshow before it, well-tailored to the pacing, driving the action as much as the directing. The setting of the underground facility represents the great tomb of civilization. Underlying the entertainment are examples of everything from claustrophobia, megalomania, regressive behavior, cold war, world hunger, cabin fever, lack of communication/cooperation and humanity as well as a strong heroine facing sexism (lead Lori Cardille earned Best Female Performance at the aforementioned French Expo). She also won a second award in Spain. See it here.
It is one of the most intense films ever made. Because of its modernized music, setting and effects I think it ages the best of the three Dead films. It is definitely the most nightmarish and nihilistic. If this is Romero's last word on the living dead, it's more than enough.