In Darkest Day
If I were an '80s horror movie, I wouldn't have been jealous of Day of the Dead. The conditions under which the third chapter of George A. Romero's influential zombie saga was released were as daunting as those throngs of walking damned he brought to the screen. The film's original budget had been halved when Romero refused to tone down the gore; it came out right around the similarly-themed Return of the Living Dead; and to top it off, everyone compared it to 1978's critical and financial smash, Dawn of the Dead. But in spite of the unfair shakes and tough reviews it got back then, Day of the Dead's reputation as a somber and thoughtful horror film has only improved, strengthened further yet by a fancy new Blu-ray edition from the genre boutique Scream Factory.
The living dead that rose during the night and conquered the dawn are now at the top of the food chain. Zombie hordes outnumber human survivors by a massive margin, forcing those still breathing to retreat into whatever shreds of civilization are left active. Sarah (Lori Cardille) is a scientist "lucky" enough to be sharing a huge, underground base with military protection, although the tenuous peace is on the brink of shattering. Driven mad by cramped quarters, dwindling supplies, and no hope of relief from the undead menace in sight, Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato) moves closer every day to snapping completely and taking the complex down with him. But will the surprising intelligence shown by zombie test subject Bub (Howard Sherman) pave the way to the group's possible salvation, or are they just delaying their own inevitably gruesome fates?
When Day of the Dead's marketing campaign referred to it as "the darkest day of horror the world has ever known," that wasn't a joke. Sadness permeates throughout the entire film, a hopeless atmosphere in which nearly every character has cracked under pressure and is desperate for an excuse to stay alive. The movie lets in barely any sunlight; it's set almost entirely within a system of claustrophobic caves; and Romero just lightly scatters zombie carnage throughout, saving the gnarliest stuff for the grand finale. It's certainly a change of pace from the colorful and cartoony Dawn of the Dead, skewing psychological with its horror (albeit while ensuring its images are as gut-churningly grotesque as they can be). But where many took umbrage with Day of the Dead for being too dour and cerebral, Romero brings it to a personal level similar to the way Night of the Living Dead focused above all on the wear and tear on the psyches of its non-shambling players.
Still, it's not difficult to see why Day of the Dead initially struck people as disappointing. There's no real story to grab onto, which could be said of the other Dead movies, but it's especially thin here, given how much of the conflict is dealt with via screaming matches. Also stuck in several viewers' collective craw was the perceived overacting, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't wish Romero had found a more clever way to present the army guys as antagonists instead of making them all bellering bullies. But for every Pilato chowing down on scenery and asking for seconds, we get a Cardille -- perhaps one of the most strong and levelheaded leading ladies in all horrordom -- and a Sherman, whose Bub deservedly steals the show, thanks to the actor's astoundingly expressive performance. Plus, if anyone gets on your nerves, trust that they'll get their comeuppance in an ultra-gory display of Tom Savini's impeccable make-up effects work. Rarely have exposed brains and filleted foreheads looked this great.
Dawn still remains my pick for the most funny, frightening, and well-rounded picture in Mr. Romero's oeuvre, but Day of the Dead is no slouch. Though its social commentary is delivered with the bluntest force imaginable, something has to be said for a picture that manages to be nerve-wracking as all get-out even with no limb-chomping zombies in sight. If it's been a while since you unearthed Day of the Dead, you'll be satisfied it's still as lively a beast as when you left it.
Scream Factory's Day of the Dead Blu-ray contains the following special features:
Audio commentary with writer/director George A. Romeo, lead actress Lori Cardille, make-up effects maestro Tom Savini, and production designer Cletus Anderson. It's a lively little track, with plenty of stories and anecdotes about the filming to entertain you.
Audio commentary with filmmaker Roger Avary. This track is much more from a fan's perspective, with Avary (The Rules of Attraction) discussing growing up as a horror fan and how he considers Day of the Dead to be a particularly underrated classic.
World's End: The Legacy of Day of the Dead, a brand-new, 85-minute documentary with various cast/crew members dishing about Day of the Dead's creation and the effect it's had on subsequent horror flicks (especially zombie movies, natch). There's not much that's terribly deep here, mostly stories about the rough filming process and how the movie has grown to be much more revered in the following years. Fans will know most of this material by heart, but it's a well-made feature that serves as a nice education for first-time viewers.
Rounding out the disc are multiple theatrical trailers, TV spots, photo galleries, behind-the-scenes footage from Tom Savini's archives, and even a promotional video touting the limestone caverns in which the film was shot (along with a mini-documentary revisiting the location).