Day of the Dead [DVD]
Director : George A. Romero
Screenplay : George A. Romero
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1985
Stars : Lori Cardille (Sarah), Terry Alexander (John), Joseph Pilato (Capt. Rhodes), Jarlath Conroy (William McDermott), Anthony Dileo (Pvt. Miguel Salazar), Richard Liberty (Dr. Logan), Howard Sherman (Bub), G. Howard Klar (Pvt. Steel), Ralph Marrero (Pvt. Rickles)
After the midnight-movie success of his groundbreaking horror masterpiece Night of the Living Dead (1968), writer/director George A. Romero spent much of the 1970s trying to get out from under it and show that he had range beyond zombie movies. He first tried with his ill-fated second feature, 1972’s little-seen drama There’s Always Vanilla (aka The Affair). Not surprisingly, he went back to horror after that, but made films with range, including Jack’s Wife (1973), a feminist allegory about suburban witches, the underrated paranoia flick The Crazies (1973), which revisited Night’s fearful vision of an apocalypse, and Martin (1976), a masterfully subtle revisionist look at vampirism.
Yet, when people think of George A. Romero, they immediately think of zombies, and his first true success of the 1970s was his Night of the Living Dead follow-up, Dawn of the Dead (1978), which to many (myself included) remains his true masterpiece, a candy-colored, blackly comedic social satire with guts, both literally and figuratively. Made on a minimal budget, it returned some $55 million in theaters, which made it an enormous independent hit despite having been released without an MPAA rating.
Thus, in the mid-1980s, when Romero returned to the subject for which he was best known in order to complete his zombie trilogy with Day of the Dead, to say that expectations were high would be something of an understatement. The ad campaign for the movie was self-consciously built around this fact, proclaiming it to be “The most anticipated Day in horror movie history.” Yet, when Day of the Dead was released, it fizzled at the box office and many critics who had applauded Dawn found it lacking. Die-hard Romero fans had much to cherish, particularly splatter master Tom Savini’s gruesomely effective wizardry with fake blood, prosthetics, and animal entrails, but most wrote the film off as a let-down. The fact that it was competing with a number of other zombie-themed films that year, including Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator and Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead, both of which took a tongue-in-cheek approach to the material, made Romero’s intensely claustrophobic film look all the more creaky and overly serious.
Many have come around in the intervening years and found much to admire in Day of the Dead, and Romero has proclaimed it to be his favorite of the trilogy, even though he had to drastically scale back his original vision in order to meet budgetary requirements imposed by the producer. In truth, Day is a good horror film, albeit one that is almost unrelentingly dark and not particularly pleasant to watch (although one might argue, quite rightly, that good horror shouldn’t be “pleasant”). Day lacks the biting humor of Dawn of the Dead, and it also lacks the single-minded efficiency of Night of the Living Dead. But, more than anything, it lacks humanity. The previous two films offered us human characters about whom we grew to care as they fought for survival in a world on the brink of destruction. Ironically enough, the most intriguing and likable character in Day of the Dead isn’t a living human, but rather one of the zombies, a guy named Bub (played by Howard Sherman in what is, by any measure, a great performance).
The other characters are almost universally repulsive, which admittedly fits into Romero’s overall conception of his zombie apocalypse. By this point, the zombies outnumber the humans 400,000 to 1, and virtually the only people still alive are either military men or scientists. The majority of the film takes place in an expansive underground bunker, where a ragtag platoon of hammy-psychotic army soldiers guards a group of scientists who are studying the zombies and trying to find out what makes them tick.
The lead scientist is Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty), who has been nicknamed “Frankenstein” and for good reason. Constantly covered with blood and gore, his hair frazzled and his face unshaven, Logan is a mad scientist right out of the old EC comics, although he speaks with an ironically eloquent lilt to his voice that makes him seem more sane than he is. The military is represented by the dictatorial Captain Rhodes (Joseph Pilato), who has recently taken over command and doesn’t have much appreciation for the scientists’ work. He also doesn’t have much appreciation for people’s eardrums either, as he shouts most of his profanity-strewn dialogue at the top of his lungs.
The remains of decent humanity are embodied mostly by Sarah (Lori Cardille), another scientist, but one who hasn’t lost her marbles. Sarah is by far the strongest character in the film, but she’s also the most boring. She so clearly wears her label of “good strong person” that it’s not much fun rooting for her. More interesting are the Jamaican helicopter pilot, John (Terry Alexander), and the Irish communications expert, McDermott (Jarlath Conroy), both of whom know when to fight the good fight and when to sit back and relish the last vestiges of civilization and indulge their own self-interest. They’re the only truly three-dimensional characters in the film.
The first hour or so of Day of the Dead is a bleak portrait of humanity’s crumbling attempts to maintain itself. Self-deluded, aggressive, and misguided, virtually all of the major characters have already self-destructed before the zombies can rip them to pieces. The film certainly picks up once the zombies are let loose and the blood and guts begin to fly—necks are ripped open, arms are chopped off, fingers are severed, heads are pulled off while the victims are still screaming, and one character is literally torn in half, all of which is rendered in graphic detail that is so deliriously over-the-top that it never registers as anything other than comic mayhem. Romero’s gory sensibility is that of a giddy renegade—he wants to show you the unshowable and, even further, find humor in it. This is particularly true of one scene in which half a zombie’s head is hacked off with a shovel, and we see it sitting upside down like an upended top, its eyes still darting back and forth—it’s the one moment in the film that Romero comes close to capturing the black-comedy tone of Dawn of the Dead.
As an allegory for the exchange of power—in which one social system comes in and replaces another without making a true difference—Romero’s Dead trilogy is terrifically thought-provoking, and although it can be criticized on a number of levels, Day of the Dead offers a fitting ending. The underground bunker becomes a metaphorical (and later literal) tomb for its lingering inhabitants, and even a tacky final scene suggesting a paradise escape for the “good” characters can’t quite balance the horrific idea that the zombies have finally taken over and any hope has been lost.
|Day of the Dead Divimax Two-Disc Special Edition DVD|
|Audio|| English Dolby Digital EX 5.1 Surround |
English DTS-ES 6.1 Surround
Dolby 2.0 Surround
|Supplements|| Audio commentary by director George A. Romero, make-up effects designer Tom Savini, production designer Cletus Anderson, and actress Lori Cardille|
Audio commentary by filmmaker Roger Avary
“The Many Days of Day of the Dead” retrospective documentary
“Day of the Dead: Behind the Scenes” production footage
Audio interview with actor Richard Liberty
Wampum Mine promotional video
Three theatrical trailers
Three TV spots
George A. Romero biography
Original first-draft screenplay (DVD-ROM)
Production memos (DVD-ROM)
|Distributor||Anchor Bay Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||August 19, 2003|
|This is the second time Anchor Bay has released Day of the Dead on DVD (the first time was back in 1998), but this time around they have given it the full high-definition DiViMax treatment. The resulting image is absolutely superb, with excellent color and contrast and great detail (gorehounds will rejoice at the crystal clarity with which Tom Savini’s blood-and-guts effects are rendered). The darker scenes betray some grain inherent in the image, but overall it is just about pristine.|
|Anchor Bay has also souped up this edition with new DTS ES 6.1 surround and Dolby Digital EX 5.1 surround soundtracks. Both are uniformly excellent, with strong fidelity and clarity. The surround channels are used effectively without drawing undue attention to themselves, mostly to open up John Harrison’s (quite awful) synthesizer score.|
|Unlike their previous bare-bones DVD release of Day of the Dead, Anchor Bay has equipped this nicely packaged DiViMax two-disc special edition with a host of supplements, all of which are nicely presented in anamorphic widescreen. On the first disc, one can find a pair of excellent audio commentaries. The first is by director George A. Romero, make-up effects designer Tom Savini, production designer Cletus Anderson, and actress Lori Cardille, all of whom were recorded together and sound like they had a lot of fun reminiscing about the production. The second commentary is by filmmaker Roger Avary (Killing Zoe), who describes himself as a huge Romero fan. Avary certainly wants to display his filmmaker-knowledge pedigree, as he references Kubrick, Polanski, and Cocteau all in the first two minutes of his commentary. |
The second disc opens with a informative 39-minute retrospective documentary featuring interviews with Romero, Savini, Anderson, and Cardille, along with producer David Ball, make-up effects wizard Greg Nicotero, assistant director Chris Romero, and actors Joe Pilato and Howard Sherman. The doc covers the expected areas, particularly the forced scaling back of the original screenplay due to budgetary limitations. Diehard FX fans will get a kick out of the next supplement, a half-hour of rough video footage shot by Savini during the film’s production. The footage shows numerous people being made up into zombies and also shows the mechanics and execution of virtually every major FX sequence in the movie. There’s also a 15-minute audio interview with the late actor Richard Liberty that was recorded in 2000, along with a trio of theatrical trailers and TV spots, a Romero biography, and an extensive stills gallery that includes production shots, behind-the-scenes photos, international poster art, various memorabilia, and continuity Polaroids.
Lastly, using a DVD-ROM drive, you can access PDF files of Romero’s original script for the movie, as well as a host of production memos and internal letters.
©2003 James Kendrick