|Day of the Dead|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 24 November 1998|
He didn't bring this up during Dawn of the Dead, the best of his three "zombie" movies, but it does surface in the third, and last to date, Day of the Dead. Unfortunately, this is also easily the least of the three films, a talky, interminable bore populated with unpleasant characters overplayed by actors of widely varying talent. In the last fifteen minutes, the screen is (finally) overrun with the living dead as they wander through the underground base where the story is set, tearing stragglers apart and chomping on their still-living flesh. Tom Savini's makeup effects are imaginative, but could have been more inventively used by writer-director Romero, who also includes too many scenes of zombies simply chewing on arms, ears, what have you.
Romero doesn't bother to bring newcomers to the Dead films up to date with any kind of explanation; the dead are walking the Earth and eating the few remaining living people. One character suggests that this cannibal armageddon is God's way of punishing us, but that's a cheap and obvious idea; Romero seems to have included it solely because he felt he had to say something.
Sarah (Lori Cardille) is one of a team of scientists working at underground south Florida military base (can there be underground bases in south Florida?), but just exactly what they're doing isn't very clear. Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty), leader of the scientists, is trying to find a way to control the hordes of zombies shambling out there in the Florida sunshine, but he's more than a little nuts, and seems to spend his time cutting up zombie bodies and marveling that they still keep working.
The dwindling military force is led by Rhodes (Joseph Pilato), a loudmouth with a lot of guns and very little remaining patience. The airwaves seem as dead as the zombies, and a lot less active, so he has no idea what his orders are, but this doesn't stop him from being a tinpot tyrant anyway. And all his crude and vulgar men are as unpleasant as he is.
The scientists and others are hardly any better, as far as that goes. Only Sarah seems to be fully sane, and even she is starting to lose her grip as Rhodes yells at everyone, the zombies moan, and Logan -- often called "Frankenstein" -- cheerfully demonstrates another partly-disassembled zombie body that keeps on tickin'.
The director has frequently claimed that he didn't have the budget to wrap up the three films in the way he planned; contracts demanded he proceed nonetheless. It's too bad he's never been able to get financing for his rumored real finale, "Twilight of the Dead;" this book needs to be satisfactorily closed. Certainly Day of the Dead doesn't provide closure -- or much of anything else, except exceptional makeups, and those only occasionally.
There's simply no story here. The Army guys yell at the scientific team, who sometimes yell back, but that's not a story; it's just a long quarrel. Unaccountably, they keep a pen of zombies down in the catacombs with them. This seems potentially catastrophic (and eventually is, of course -- hang a zombie on the wall in the first act, and...) but senseless, what with the base being completely surrounded by the walking dead, who press up against the chainlink fence, but never think of climbing over it.
The only thread that indicates any kind of progression is Logan's work with a chained zombie he's dubbed Bub (Howard Sherman), who really does seem to get smarter as the time passes -- but there's no real payoff to this. When we last see Bub, he's shambling around the boring corridors of the subterranean base. Romero's idea that Bub represents some kind of advance, that the walking dead might form their own civilization or something, doesn't work, since we're told in no uncertain terms that the gallivanting corpses do eventually decay so much they fall apart.
Basically, all that happens in Day of the Dead is that everyone yells at everyone else, and sometimes talk about the way things used to be, then in the last two reels, a man who was bitten by a zombie seems to go a little crazy in the head, and takes base's big elevator up to the surface. It loads up with zombies, and as they tear him to pieces, he lowers it back into the base. His motivations are, to say the least, pretty foggy.
But his actions do provide the best scenes in the movie, as that big elevator platform descends, crowded with zombies of all descriptions (there's even a clown). They spread out through the base, picking off stragglers one by one. This is the film's big set piece, and really its only reason to exist.
The cast is variable; while Lori Cardille's performance is generally strong, there is a faint whiff of the amateur about it, too. With some of the others, it's more like a distinct odor than a whiff, which Romero seems to have tried to cover up by having everyone slightly overplay their roles, but some of the performances are quite good. As Dr. Logan, Richard Liberty creates an unnerving, disturbing character; brilliant, smug, slightly deranged, annoying, a lunatic dancing on the edge of a volcano. But the best performance is that of Howard Sherman as Bub the Zombie (the actor is apparently sometimes billed as Sherman Howard); we can see the slow dawn of intelligence on his face in sequence after sequence, right through Savini's fine makeup. He becomes somewhat sympathetic, although this is partly because he never actually rips off someone's head and eats their face.
The sets are, unfortunately, dull and unimaginative -- a demand of the plot. Surely a movie called Day of the Dead should have had more scenes set in the sunlight, but no, Romero chose to set almost the entire film in these wearisome, unattractive underground sets. The one clever touch is that the main meeting room is as vast as an airplane hanger, but there are never more than a dozen people in it. The music by John Harrison doesn't help; it's droning, repetitious and weak.
Anchor Bay's DVD, though lacking any extras, is their usual professional job, and even if Day of the Dead is far from the film it could have been (particularly coming after the outstanding Dawn of the Dead), it's worthy of this format. Romero fans still devoutly defend the film, and now they have it in the best form short of 35mm.