Why not get this out of the way – right off the bat?
Day of the Dead – the late George A. Romero’s 3rd installment in the on-going undead saga – is my #1, tip-top, absolute favorite film of all time. And that’s not just horror, folks – that’s tops when looking at dramas, comedies, action flicks, sci-fi and everything else in between.
High praise, indeed, right?
Day of the Dead takes us inside an underground bunker/storage facility in the wilds of Florida. A group of civilian scientists and a bunch of itchy trigger-finger military men share this vast (and yet somehow cramped) space. The scientists spend their days trying to figure out how to fix or how to end the zombie apocalypse up on the surface, while the military faction begrudgingly assists these scientific efforts. Among the group is the only female, scientist Sarah (Lori Cardille) and a semi-domesticated zombie named Bub (Howard Sherman). When tensions between the scientists and the military men comes to a violent head – paired with the looming danger of the walking corpses – all hell breaks loose. Who will survive?
I’ve always found this film to have three major things going for it.
One: Performances. While many believe Joe Pilato’s performance (as lead military man Captain Rhodes) is a little over-the-top, I’ve always found it to be a highly enjoyable bit of scenery-chewing. And beneath these loud line deliveries, there’s the nugget of real fear and desperation from the character as he realizes he is expected to lead this dwindling and fractured group. So I think the insecurities which Pilato brings to Rhodes are overlooked because of his surface anger. Either that, or Rhodes is just an a**hole.
Supporting turns from Howard Sherman as “Bub” and the late Richard Liberty as “Dr. Frankenstein/Logan” are easy highlights in a strong group of solid actors. Liberty perfectly captures Logan’s deteriorating mind and you’ll marvel at Liberty’s quirky character choices – when you’re not completely disgusted by Logan’s actions in the name of science.
As for Sherman – he gets but one line of dialogue and the rest of Bub’s emotions must be conveyed through pantomime and a series of grunts and growls. The fact that we deeply sympathize with this flesh-eating corpse – says a great deal about Sherman’s masterful acting work.
But, as has always been my belief – this film is Lori Cardille’s. She’s a remarkable actress – never hesitating to show the boiling uncertainty beneath the character’s strong facade – most notably in what I’ve termed her “Oscar” clip – when she is forced to do something downright grotesque to save a loved one. Even with so much going at this moment in the story and in the marvelous special make-up effects – you must still keep a watchful eye on all of the lovely detail in Cardille’s performance. She shakes, she sobs and she shows that Sarah’s strength is peeling away – as everything else is falling apart in the world of the film.
The second star of this film is the gnarly make-up work from maestro Tom Savini. You thought he did wonders in Dawn of the Dead – just wait until you see the zombie visages and the gut-crunching he provides here. Of note is the now legendary demise of one of the main characters (I’m sure you’ve seen it, but for the uninitiated, I’ll refrain from spoilers) at the film’s climax. Savini and his practical ingenuity at its absolute finest.
Finally, you’ve gotta love the overall atmosphere of dread and death and hopelessness this film so beautifully captures. Romero was a master at so much (may he RIP), including editing, making his characters’ poor communication mark their downfall and making his audiences unable to escape this horrible unease. Seriously, this film is uncomfortable – for sooo many reasons.
Day of the Dead took a long time to gain the “cult status” it now so richly enjoys. Not originally received with a lot of love – it’s time to finally notch it up as a true horror classic.
This film boasts great performances from a gifted acting ensemble, mind-blowing practical effects and enough zombie-filled, post-apocalyptic dread to fill up an entire underground storage facility (i.e, a lot).
Day of the Dead is available on DVD and Bluray – but my personal favorite version is the Anchor Bay souped-up Divimax edition with the “Bub” head fold-out cover. So many amazing extras and an that eye-catching neon yellow case.
The film was originally released in 1985. And there have been TWO quite inferior remakes of the film since then. Yeah, you can go ahead and avoid those completely.