Thanks to Stranger Things, Day Of The Dead has gained a bit of an increase in its otherwise tepid reputation. Known mostly for being the final of George A Romeo’s original Living Dead Trilogy, it never gained the prestige of Night nor the hipness of Dawn. It was just “the third one”, and didn’t really get talked about. That’s probably due to it being so utterly downbeat and bleak, even by the standards set by the master of zombie cinema.
The main reason for this is that it doesn’t follow the three-act drama set by the previous two films. Both of them, for all their diversity and difference to each other, have three key beats: zombies turn up, the humans find sanctuary and then quarrel, the zombies get in and nibble everyone. Day doesn’t have this tempo, as it’s set in a post-zombie apocalypse world. It’s three acts are: the zombies have won, the humans have false sanctuary and are already quarrelling, and then… well, no spoilers. Let’s just say it’s all far less optimistic, far less positive, and somehow far more realistic than the others. It’s also far more satisfying, if you are willing to entertain something close to a nihilistic zombie Waiting For Godot.
As said, the world of Day of The Dead is one in which the zombies have unquestionably won. For all we know, the twelve characters we get to meet could be the entirety of non-vitality challenged humanity. We don’t know this as a fact, they don’t know it as a fact, but it looks plausible.. Bummer. On top of that, the main story takes place underground in a government bunker. This pumps the tension right up, as not only is it an unnatural and dishevelled environment but it makes the zombies an ever present but unseen and unheard danger; and that makes them worse!
The three main factions, almost constantly yelling at each other, are the military, scientists, and the civilians. The military are wonderfully dishevelled and broken down, bearing more than a passing resemblance to a Vietnam troop where discipline has collapsed (complete with homegrown pot). They are led by Captain Rhodes, who has the idea that if he threatens to shoot them enough he’ll somehow be in control of everything. You’ll hate him for it, along with his unchallenged casual racism and unending misogyny. They are tasked with keeping the scientists safe, although they don’t really want to.
Meanwhile the scientists are nominally led by Dr “Frankenstein” Logan, who is quite clearly as mad as Captain Rhodes by the time we meet him. He has been tasked by “the government” (who may or may not still exist) to try and find a way of stopping the zombies, but he has a much better idea of trying to domesticate them. And by “better” we obviously mean worse, because it’s very obviously not going to work but he’s convinced it’s worth feeding the occasional dead soldier to his test subjects on the off chance..
The final faction are two civilians: John the helicopter pilot and Bill the radio operator. They are there for reasons unknown, and they represent just giving up at the futility of it all. They don’t especially want to die; they have just accepted the nihilistic inevitability of the extinction of mankind and want to live out the final days of the apocalypse in peace and quiet. They shout the least of the three groups and, depressingly, talk the most sense.
Striding the three groups, and acting as the main plot focus, is Dr Sarah Bowman. She acts as the nexus of all three groups by having had a relationship with Miguel (a soldier with blindingly obvious PTSD), being one of the researchers, and getting along with the civilians. She also appears to be the only person trying to get on with the mission, which means she’s more stressed than anyone else. This manifests itslef in a series of nightmares, providing both deeply compelling visuals and some of the best jump scares of the film. She also gets to talk with John and Bill, drawing out their philosophy and personalities through a series of well performed and quite charming dialogues.
The meat of the story is the assorted zombie snacks not getting along and shouting at each other in an assortment of deeply frustrating ways. It’s a series of high tension blasts of anger, followed by long, drawn out moments of nothingness. It’s a combat zone without that much shooting and a life or death situation without a release of pressure. Given that you’ll soon understand why everyone is acting the way they do, even if you can’t agree with them, and that’s a little triumph of storytelling. It’s deceptively subtle, but you’ll get drawn into the awfulness of it all.
Once the munching finally starts (I know I said “no spoilers”, but you know the score), it’s somewhat of a welcome break as everyone can finally get on with what they’re there for: being pulled apart limb from limb. Tom Savini won the 1985 Saturn Award for best film make up here, and the deaths are both the most drawn out and on-screen of the series. The schadenfreude is high, the poetic justice is deep, and the blood runs freely. As for the final ending, it’s pretty much perfect in a deeply downbeat way.
Yes, there are gorier films out there now and Savini’s state-of-the-art work does look a little dated in a (surprisingly) few places. People looking for a nibble-fest are going to be as disappointed now as they were then: it’s not a chipper bit of blood and gore; this is muddy, brutal, and slow. If you can get with the downer trip then you’ll have an experience, but if you want your horror a bit more upbeat then look elsewhere.
Me? I think it’s one of the greatest zombie movies ever made.