The 60's saw George A. Romero bring us Night of the Living Dead, the low budget breakthrough undead experience; oozing with vision and ideas, the granddaddy of the genre was very much a film of its time. Romero and Russo, whether intentionally or not, managed to capture and entwine all the prevalent societal prejudices and fears in a timeless horror narrative. Never forcing cold war politics or domestic racism in any obvious way they produced a film that works whether you acknowledge its subversion or not.
The 70's saw Romero return with arguably the daddy of the zombie genre, Dawn of the Dead is the seminal apocalyptic masterpiece; a character survival story of small group doing all they can to stay alive against an abundant endless zombie horde. On the surface an action horror comedy Dawn of the Dead captures the same fears of the 1970's as Night of the Living Dead did of the 60's. With sweeping automation and a political agenda pushing rampant mindless consumerism, Dawn of the Dead took a satirical swipe at consumerism and yet does so with such subtlety the message could easily be lost under the weight of its strong narrative.
So to Day of the Dead, Romero's third instalment and this time a journey to the 1980's. In an era of Reagan and Thatcher, attention on military might and police and state control, it's no surprise to see the main focus of the film a power struggle between a group of scientists trying to understand and ultimately control the zombie virus and a military force, now confused and depleted trying to understand and control the scientists.
The apocalypse has purged life from the globe and the few survivors that are left are isolated and afraid. With a limited budget Romero returned to the tight claustrophobic feel of his first film to create a cooped up high pressure cinder keg , full of anxiety and paranoia where people become increasingly more desperate to take whatever measures they feel are necessary in order to survive. This time the disparate band have found themselves holed up in an old inadequate WW2 bunker in Florida, their military commander has just been killed and the group is increasingly becoming tense and at odds with each other.
Scientists Sarah (Lori Cardille) the only female survivor and Dr. Ted Fisher (John Amplas) under the guidance of senior eccentric Dr. Matthew Logan (Richard Liberty) are struggling with dwindling resources to provide tangible answers to the increasingly overbearing and hostile Captain Rhodes (Joseph Pilato) who's starting to question the sacrifices he and his team are making to keep the operation going.
With increasingly questionable methods and behaviour Logan, known as Frankenstein by the military, has moved from the search for a cure, sought by his colleagues, to a belief that the answer is to accept and manage their condition. This allows Romero to play with the zombie physiology and psychology in more depth than before. With special effects much closer to what these days we expect to see, Logan's lab and experimentation is a horrific abattoir of blood, intestines and severed heads with exposed organs and brains wired up at every turn.
At first we learn via Logan, they don't require flesh for sustenance, (he removes stomach and all internal organs), that they decompose at slow rate and they're motivated purely by primal drives. Later he explores the idea that perhaps their old dead neural pathways could with help be reignited. Using what Rhodes and many of the others think is increasingly bizarre and later unethical methods he attempts to domesticate 'Bub', a specimen, he says with promise, by introducing objects and music that he hopes will stimulate his brain to reconnection old memories. Ultimately his hope is to demonstrate that zombies with help can be made docile and even useful, and all this will please Captain Rhodes and the military.
It's all fascinating stuff and is certainly something new to watch especially as Bub does indeed not only respond positively to the mad doctor, but later shows signs of reconnecting with his emotional self, clearly demonstrating sorrow and sadness and even a spark of vengeance. Ultimately though, and as in all good zombies films, things don't turn out exactly as hoped, the group splinters and disintegrates, chaos erupts, a lot of blood is spilled and Bub doesn't get to make a grand reintroduction back into civilised society.
Gone are the non-descript, signature blue and grey zombies of the first couple of films and perhaps parodying the militaries doctrine of desensitising soldiers to make them follow orders and work as a unit, the zombies of Day of the Dead show far more individualistic traits than before, with clowns, footballers, dancers, colour and outfits at every turn. Even the inclusion of Bub and the signs that he is possibly capable of redemption supports Romero's 80's subtext of retaining individual identity in the face of becoming merely a face in the crowd (horde).
Well acted with a good mix of personalities I do feel the narrative suffers from characters that are a tad one dimensional throughout really only ever showing a single facet. The mad scientist, the relaxed Jamaican pilot, the alcoholic, the unquestioning always joking about soldiers; they never really display any real depth or complexity and this is most apparent with the megalomaniac racist misogynist Rhodes who throughout is almost too inhuman, desperate and evil to really come across as authentically plausible.
Day of the Dead is widely regarded as the weakest of the three Dead films and this is probably accurate. The characters are a little one dimensional and the narrative predictable, but it still offers a good tight zombie cinematic experience full of wit and intelligence. Romero's zombies still show why they're the benchmark 25 years on, and with improved special effect techniques, inside and out, Day of the Dead probably stands out as the pinnacle his legacy. The action and pacing is faultless and whilst I have I no real complaints, to me, it just never quite reaches the heights of his previous efforts, and if anything the storty is perhaps all a little safe and even dare I say occasionally mundane. A Romero zombie classic nonetheless, 8/10.