By the time 1985 rolled around, Romero had made one other Dead film: the brilliant Dawn of the Dead. Other countries, especially Italy and Spain, turned zombie movies into virtual cash machines and zombies, for the first time, were everywhere. So there was great anticipation for Day of the Dead, Romero’s third film in what was, for years, thought to be a trilogy. Expectations were high and, unfortunately, the film was a bust and the zombie craze began to slowly fizzle out.
In retrospect, Day of the Dead is a nihilistic masterpiece and not at all worthy of the criticism lobbed against it. Concerning the tail end of civilization as we know it (the zombie to human ratio is 400,000 to 1), Day of the Dead pits scientists and the military against each other as they work together in an underground silo in an attempt to reverse the course of the plague, which has reached global proportions.
These days, we know that Romero wanted to make a much bigger movie than he did. Initially budgeted around $6 million, the film was also to include the sequestered city on an island that would turn up in the studio-backed Land of the Dead almost 20 years later. Nervous about releasing such an expensive movie without an MPAA rating, the producers slashed the budget in half and Romero pared his vision back.
What Romero did capture, however, is spectacular. The cavernous setting of the underground cave is wholly unique and unusual. It’s also creepily effective as the sounds of the zombies who have been taken prisoner for scientific experiments waft through the echo chamber and await their fate. It should also be said that this movie represents the pinnacle of Tom Savini’s career. A Romero stalwart, Savini had never before created the kind of gooey practical effects on display here. Dripping with entrails, internal organs and flapping dermis, Savini need only put this movie in his portfolio as it truly is the alpha and omega of his work.
The performances are all pretty great, even if everything is dialed up a bit much in moments. Lori Cardille, daughter of Bill Cardille from Night of the Living Dead, is fantastic as the stoic Sarah who has to oscillate between keeping it together and collapsing under severe emotional strain; Terry Alexander is cooly brilliant as John, the moral center of the piece and the character with the best lines; Richard Liberty gives the finest performance of his career as Dr. Logan, the mad scientist with a strange past to which he subtly alludes; but it’s Sherman Howard as Bub who steals the movie. The star pupil of Dr. Logan, Bub’s physicality and dialogue-free delivery runs the gamut from pathos to rage and is easily the greatest zombie performance of all time.
Once again, Scream Factory hits a home run with this release. Previously, Day of the Dead had been under the stewardship of Anchor Bay, and while its DVD and Blu-ray releases weren’t insulting, there was room for improvement in both the picture and sound departments. Here, the brand new transfer serves the film well, allowing for the small doses of color to pop off the screen and render the textures quite nicely. While some of the dialogue seems to include a certain hiss that I may have just never noticed before, John Harrison’s evocative score sounds great and the gruesome sound effects are all balanced quite well. Added to this is a full-length commentary ported over from the Anchor Bay release, a bevy of trailers, a retrospective on the locations and a few others. However, the real draw is the extensive, almost-90 minute making-of documentary containing new interviews with just about everyone involved.
Just in time for Halloween, Day of the Dead finally gets the Blu-ray treatment it deserves. — Patrick Crain