“Day of the Dead”
Stars: Lori Cardille, Terry Alexander, Joe Pilato, Richard Liberty
Writer: George Romero
Dir: George Romero
The “Return of the Jedi” of George A. Romero’s first zombie trilogy, “Day of the Dead” was savaged upon initial release. Having been 8 years old at the time, I did not obviously see the film right away, but I sure as hell remember the teaser trailers on TV, with a ton of seemingly disembodied hands plunging through a cinderblock wall to grab a rather attractive woman.
That happens in the first moment of “Day.” It was a cheap attempt to scare the audience, but, at this point, we all know Uncle George was done trying to scare us. He wanted us to think and used a seemingly unstoppable foil to jumpstart our numb minds.
“Day” finds the human race nearly wiped out, with a handful of humans struggling to survive and stop the apocalypse above while hiding in an underground bunker. A sect of scientists — protected at the time by an increasingly paranoid and power-hungry military platoon — are losing time to figure out what causes the dead’s desire to look at the living as dinner, cure the plague, and return society to normal while continuing a search for survivors.
Many years have passed since Romero’s “Dawn.” While many critics were turned off by the numerous scenes of yelling and screaming protagonists, as a young viewer, I understood Romero’s vision: Humanity had reached its last thread of sanity. Desperation and animal instincts were ruling the survivors. Captain Rhoades (Pilato), serving as totalitarian dictator in his little kingdom, knows he has the opportunity and firepower to make every command a reality. He is the worst bully anyone could meet and Pilato, an inexperienced actor, does a fine job of making the audience hate him instantly. The audience can feel empathy for the non-military survivors: scientist Sarah (Cardille), helicopter pilot John (Alexander), and radio operator McDermott (Jarlath Conroy).
However, the most interesting and likable character is portrayed by Richard Liberty. As Dr. “Frankenstein” Logan, Liberty (who has sadly passed on) immediately engages the audience as not only a sympathetic doctor hell-bent on stopping the zombie virus, but also reversing it in a very unconventional way — creating zombie pets. His star pupil, “Bub,” phenomenally portrayed by Howard Sherman, expands Romero’s rules and humanizes the cannibalistic enemy, a risky turn for the director — a risk, which, in this instance, paid out in spades.
“Day,” again, leans heavily on its characters to further the story. One moment in the film, where John and Sarah wax philosophically about religion and Darwinism, stands out as a powerful, thought-provoking moment that would have seemed silly in other hands and films. Romero and the cast take that moment, and the moment in which it took place — Cold War America — and put a stamp on humanity that reads: “You are destroying us; maybe that isn't such a bad thing.”
While “Day” easily contains incredibly realistic zombie carnage, it also, in my book, contains the most realistic display of desperation since Romero’s “NOTLD” in its human characters. The audience certainly cares about some and absolutely wants to see others destroyed in the fastest and most painful way possible. And Uncle George delivers, again, this time ten-fold.
I may get my zombie expert card taken away for writing this, but I truly believe, along with “Night of the Living Dead,” “Day” really encapsulates a realistic reaction to a menace, and tops “Dawn” handily. Come on, take out the zombies and replace it with nuclear fallout, where a handful of survivors are trapped in an underground shelter, with some looking for other survivors and others simply looking to survive.
Now, tell me, which side would you fall on after three months?
Romero Rules Followed: New ones are created here with “thinking” zombies. But, George can make them up as he goes along as far as the OT* is concerned.
Gore factor: Over the top
Zombies or Wannabees? They are still slow, dead, and fleasheating. Zombies.
Classic, fine, or waste of time: Positively a classic
Additional comments: I have taken a beating over the years defending this one, but I stand firm. Even such revered critics as Roger Ebert had to go back and review “Night of the Living Dead,” which he initially beat with a log. Many critics came back to “Day” and then “got it.” Ebert wrote, upon appreciating “Day,” that he hoped George would “stop while he was ahead.”
Sadly, as you will see, George, like another George, didn’t listen. If you hated this one, give it another glance with wide-open eyes and mind. I enjoy it even more each time I watch it.