No director has done more to define a genre than George A. Romero with zombie flicks. Without the innovative, lo-fi vibrations of Night of the Living Dead or the high-octane satirical thrills of Dawn of the Deadzombie fans would not have liked The walking dead, Army of the Dead, or a seemingly endless crowd of zombie thrillers to choose from. But in 1985, Romero’s true opus was rejected by critics and audiences alike. That movie was Day of the Deada bleak post-apocalyptic romp whose politically charged subject matter and focus on ensemble drama may have alienated 80s escapist audiences, but makes it a perfect zombie tale in the age of heightened horror.
Day of the Dead centers on a team of military and scientific personnel who take shelter in an underground bunker to survive the zombie outbreak. As the scientific team experiments on undead subjects to finalize a cure, tensions rise between them and hostile soldiers led by the insane Captain Rhodes, reaching critical mass when the survivors learn the secret behind the lead scientist’s experiments. But these tensions mostly lie within human factions, rather than the human vs. zombie conflicts viewers have come to expect from the genre. Of course, Night of the Living Dead AND Dawn of the Dead excelled for their depictions of human struggles as much as for their jaw-dropping pain, but Day of the Dead takes it to the next level, playing out as a taut political thriller against the apocalyptic backdrop.
While many moviegoers at the time were unimpressed with the film’s emphasis on human drama rather than zombie carnage (critic Janet Maslin noted that “very [the film] devoted to the windy argument”) Day of the Dead Is one devastating portrait of humanity that finds its true antagonist in human hubris rather than undead cannibals.
That “wind plot” pays off because Romero is so adept at drama and character building that he can make us root for the zombies. If you can’t imagine that, then try watching it Day of the Dead and not cheering for Bub Zombie. It can’t be done. It also helps that the human antagonists have less humanity than their undead counterparts. Joe Pilato’s legendary performance as Captain Rhodes perfectly embodies the same anti-science, state-sponsored reactionary violence that strained progress during our own pandemic. While Romero offers a glimmer of hope for the audience with the film’s most sympathetic characters, Rhodes constantly threatens the survival of humanity to the point where you’ll practically forget about the zombie outbreak on earth because hell is already about to break loose among the undead.
In addition to heavy themes and loud suspense, Day of the Dead it’s also makeup and special effects maestro Tom Savini’s finest hour. A frequent Romero collaborator who made a name for himself with splatterfest hits like Dawn of the Dead, Maniac, AND Friday the 13th, Savini outdoes himself with zombie makeup and gore effects. Unlike the playful, comic-style violence of Dawn of the Dead, Savini’s work is so compelling that even the most enthusiastic gorehound would find it giddy. More importantly, his effects have never been used better. Day of the Dead it doesn’t just offer a shredding spectacle; the ultraviolence works alongside the themes in the game and feels entirely earned.
Day of the Dead has already developed a cult following, steadily shedding its reputation as the franchise’s black sheep. The critical disappointment of the later Dead films probably contributed to this, but it has found its audience. Foreign things he even made a splash when four of the protagonists sneak into one of his shows in the season 3 premiere.
The irony is that zombie movies have often been accused of mindless entertainment, but George Romero proved them wrong. Dead wrong. Day of the Dead it’s just enriched in subtext. It’s not just the most shocking zombie movie ever made (a description Romero and Savini take quite literally), it’s a humanistic masterpiece of survival and what survival means to us in the first place.
alas, Day of the Dead’The revaluation has not yet taken its full pace thing, which went from a potential career killer for John Carpenter to his most revered work. Be a part of that real-time reappraisal today and watch or rediscover Day of the Deadwhich is now on Hulu as well as Peacock and ad-supported platforms like Tubi, Pluto TV, Crackle and Plex.