Fright Fest: Day of the Dead (1985)
Day of the Dead is the third installment of the ‘Dead’ series from the late, great George A. Romero, and the final movie in what many consider the ‘original Dead trilogy’. It is, in every way, a masterpiece.
As the second sequel to Night of the Living Dead and part of a series, it is the perfect final third act. As a standalone horror movie, it is fantastic. As a zombie movie, it is divine. The special effects alone set this movie apart from most others, rivaled only by those in John Carpenter’s The Thing and Ridley Scott’s Alien (and okay, maybe also Tremors, directed by Ron Underwood).
NOTLD gave us the beginning of the end, Dawn gave us the chaos of the living battling to survive the dead, and Day drops us into life after the dead have won.
Typically, Romero fans favour Night and Dawn, perhaps overlooking Day because of its bleakness. However, the narrative in this movie is tight, with perfectly rounded acts, and the characters are refined and unique – no one is like anyone else. It’s undeniable that we’re dealing with some stereotypes (hard-assed military leader, eccentric scientist, etc.), but we’re also dealing with fully realised and deep individuals, each with their own motivations and outlooks.
Perhaps the reason that this script is ‘all killer, no filler’ is because it’s a condensed version of Romero’s original vision. His first script was a longer and bigger story with huge sets and a huge human versus zombie battle. Unfortunately, with huge ideas there is often cause for a huge budget, which Romero would have only been granted if he agreed to tone down the gore and horror to make the movie more marketable. Instead, he agreed to take less money for production in return for the option to make the movie as he wanted it, and so huge cuts in the rewrite were necessary. Although it’s likely that his original script would also have been fantastic, what he ended up with was a version with all the fat trimmed out and only the good stuff left.
A small group of scientists and military personnel are living in an underground bunker, hidden away from the hordes of the undead that now make up the majority of humanity. Tensions are already running high. Originally, the military were there to protect the scientists who were trying to figure out the cause and solution to the zombie plague. But now that their old leader, Cooper, is dead, Rhodes (Joe Pilato) is in charge, and he isn’t there to serve anyone. The military are now in charge of this operation, and Rhodes is every bit the dictator and tyrant that makes up a fantastic villain. Sarah (Lori Cardille) is our protagonist, and identifies more with the scientists. She and Rhodes hate each other from the start, and the rest of the characters fall under the leadership of one or the other.
The underground setting is claustrophobic in itself, but also acts as a parallel to the world above ground, which has now also become a confined and closed in space. You can’t look in any direction without the dead staring back at you, and there is nowhere left to go. Sarah, John (Terry Alexander), and McDermott (Jarlath Conroy) have been scouting the area, but the dead extend as far as they have managed to travel – 100 miles in each direction. Even with access to their helicopter, they have nowhere to run.
This alone sets this post-apocalyptic story apart from others of its kind because instead of our characters wandering the vast expanse of land alone, in search of others, they are caged in and trapped together, bringing out the very worst in what’s left of them. Unlike their dead counterparts that roam in herds above them, these people simply cannot co-exist peacefully. Their group is small, and yet they still split apart. They still live in a small society, and yet their social interactions are uncivilized and feral. Meanwhile, the zombies above thrive, driven by instinct and one common desire – to feed.
One could pose several arguments on what this movie is about – is it just a zombie flick? Is it a commentary on war? The effects of consumerism in modern day America? The abuse of power? A scathing look at humanity when everything is stripped away? All of the above?
For me, this movie is about one thing, and that is pure, unfiltered fear. Almost every character spends the entire movie absolutely terrified and this drives every action each of them takes. It’s amazing how many ways one base emotion can be represented and showcased in one movie.
Rhodes is in charge, and it’s his fear of losing his power that informs the way he treats everyone else. His primary reaction when challenged is to threaten the life of the person challenging him. He jumps straight to ‘do as I say or die’ every single time, and why wouldn’t he? When the only thing he has left in life is his position of authority over everyone else, the thought of having that stripped away is just too much. Running alongside this is of course the absolute panic that he’s been put in this position (by default) in the first place. He’s no leader; he has no plan, no information coming from outside, and no idea what to do if things inside the bunker fall apart. As a result, Rhodes is constantly flying off the handle, tense, overly dramatic, and generally an asshole to everyone.
Steel (Gary Howard Klar) and the rest of the mercenaries fear Rhodes more than they fear the zombies and their own demise. They do as he says, masking their reason for this as respect for the chain of command. But in a world where they could be the only survivors left, who would enforce that chain of command anyway? Even when Rhodes is out of control and threatening them personally, they continue to be subservient to him. And this is because as long as he’s in charge, he’s responsible for them. They’re alleviated of the stress of having to make any risky decisions, because it ultimately falls on Rhodes’ head if things go wrong. Simultaneously, they also use Rhodes’ own fear against him when they need back up. In the scene where Steel is adamant about killing Miguel (Anthony Dileo Jr), he recruits Rhodes to officially give the kill order. Miguel was bitten during a routine exercise, but Sarah amputated the infected area and insists he is safe. However, Steel doesn’t want to risk it, and knows that Rhodes will also be too afraid of Miguel turning into a threat to allow him to live.
Miguel is frantic, anxious, and coming apart when we meet him. He can’t sleep, is irate, and is already a danger because of his rapidly declining mental health. Living in a zombie apocalypse is literally scaring the sanity out of the poor man. The undead terrify him more than the others, and at the same time, he is terrified of losing the respect of the mercenaries. He puts himself and others in danger just to save face. He won’t accept his girlfriend, Sarah’s, help for fear of looking weak and having to admit that he has problems in the first place. The man is a total mess. In the end, the terror of living like he has had to is his undoing, and the undoing of most of the others too.
John and McDermott appear happy enough on the surface, but underneath they’re a pair of raw nerves. They deal with their situation by avoiding it as much as possible. They steer clear of the group when they can, don’t rock the boat, and keep to themselves. McDermott hides behind alcohol to deal with life, and John escapes inside a ‘happy place’ that he has built inside the bunker, complete with a beach sunset backdrop and fake plants. They only deal with what’s in front of them when their lives are threatened and they have no choice but to die otherwise. They’re so afraid of reality that they refuse to live in it.
Sarah is pretty good at holding herself together and generally appears to be in control of herself whilst keeping threats from the others at bay. However, she complies with Rhodes (though not without argument and disdain), keeps secrets, and even continues in her relationship with Miguel after he physically hurts her, verbally abuses her, and fights against her. She acts as the bridge between the scientists and the mercenaries, which makes her privy to experiments and secrets she has to keep, and the more she knows, the more stressed she is. She spends all of her time fighting to survive against the outside threat, but is in even more danger of the threat within. Several insidious threats against her are made, and hiding her fear from the others is the only defence she has against them.
The only characters in the movie who aren’t motivated by fear are Logan (Richard Liberty), commonly referred to as Doctor Frankenstein, and his zombie protégé, Bub (Howard Sherman). Working in polar opposition to the others, Logan is, in fact, driven by love. Love of life, love of scientific pursuit, and love of humanity. His focus should be on creating a way to bring down the undead, but instead he’s working on understanding and rehabilitating them. Bub is his star pupil, a zombie who he is conditioning to ‘behave’. His bond with Bub strengthens as he learns that Bub retains memories from his former life, and as Bub’s memories slowly return, it seems that his humanity begins to override his base instinct to feed. Logan even stands in front of Bub, prepared to take a bullet instead of allowing Rhodes to kill him. Bub himself is one of the most memorable, and famously popular characters in this movie, despite being a zombie. This is perhaps because we are able to empathise with him more than most of the human characters. Bub is stripped down to the basic human emotions, but he definitely still has them. His child-like approach to the items he is presented with (a cassette player, a razor, etc.) detracts from the fact that he is a flesh-eating monster, giving the audience the impression that he is, in many ways, a victim of his circumstances. We feel sorry for him, especially in the scene in which he proudly tries to show Logan that he figured out how to escape his chains, only to realise a moment later that Logan is dead. He loves Logan and has an emotional outburst, and then goes in pursuit of Rhodes, and ultimately gets him killed. And we’re cheering him on the whole way. Watching an undead monster chase down a human that has less humanity than the monster is just terrific fun. Logan and Bub represent what the others have lost/are losing. The concept of patience is lost on the rest of them, as is the concept of self-sacrifice. It’s intentionally ironic that a zombie has more humanity left than the majority of the others. Logan is represented as slightly insane, but he’s actually the only character left to retain his morals and principles. Logan and Bub are scary to the others because of their humanity, not despite it. They are everything that the others are not, and are misunderstood and feared as a result.
The setting and the strain on all of these characters creates a perfect pressure cooker. As Romero fans, we’re eagerly awaiting the inevitable undead overtaking of the bunker. As movie fans, we’re on the edge of our seats wondering which of these characters is going to set a chain of disaster off. And we’re not disappointed when it happens. Once in the final act of the movie and those events are triggered, there’s no stopping it. Miguel totally loses his mind and heads outside to let the zombies in, ending it once and for all. Rhodes finally snaps and starts killing people, bringing about the physical splitting off of the group. Everyone is splintering off in all directions, fleeing in vain from the shambling hordes. There’s nowhere to go, there’s nowhere to hide. Every character that dies gets an on-screen death and each of them is a work of art, as far as the visual effects go. It’s the kind of magic that could only be achieved with a Romero/Savini/Nicotero collaboration, and it’s truly spectacular.
There are deep characters, and questions of morality and humanity posed. But there’s also blood, screaming, chaos, and guts, and we love every carefully crafted second of it.
Kayleigh Marie Edwards is a playwright and horror/comedy fiction and non-fiction writer based in South Wales. She has been published in over a dozen anthologies and has had several plays commissioned, including a Halloween show for a major UK holiday park. She loves cheese, but is told that’s irrelevant. Her first collection of short stories, Corpsing, was released earlier this year with Sinister Horror Company.
Don’t miss Kayleigh’s debut novel CORPSING available on Amazon!