Growing up as a fan of horror films Romero’s _______ of the Dead” movies were essential viewing. Night and Dawn were both genre-creating classics but nobody really talked about Day of the Dead. At the time it was still an unverifiable rumor whether or not Romero would be making a forth one or not, so Day of the Dead kind of stood as the last word on zombie flicks. As teens we watched it and kind of shrugged it off as being not as entertaining. It felt like the same “there’s a zombie apocalypse and all these characters die,” story we’d seen so many times before. However, watching Day of the Dead now I’ve come to realize that there is a hell of a lot of creativity going on in this flick. So much so that I think Day of the Dead might be my favorite of the series.
Epic Desolation and Hopelessness
Romero’s intent was to try and make what he described as “the Gone with the Wind of zombie films,” but due to budget disputes and a whole host of pre-production issues he had to scale back his idea a lot. His original screenplay of over 200 pages was now condensed to 122 pages of manageable material. There still is, however, an epic feel to it all. The opening of the movie certainly does express a sense of global desolation.
We get aerial shots of an emty city and shots of abandoned streets and buildings. Two characters, Sarah (Lori Cardille) and Miguel (Anthony Dileo) rush through the streets and find no living person even as they shout with a megaphone “Hello! Is anyone there!” Then the zombies awaken. Meanwhile, at the helicopter, this group’s communications guy, McDermott (Jarlath Conroy) fruitlessly calls out on the radio for anyone that could be listening. As the zombies come out we get the full scope that EVERYONE is gone. These truly may be the last living humans on Earth. With one scene in one location Romero was able to convey complete, global loss and show the helplessness and loneliness these characters face.
The Living Villains
What makes Day of the Dead different from its predecessors is that we don’t see the initial panic of a zombie outbreak. By the time the film starts the Earth has been overrrun by the undead for a very long time. These characters have grown accustomed to the zombies – they’re just a fact of life in the background so all the conflict here stems from the characters’ interactions with each other.
We’ve got this secure bunker in Florida originally assigned a mission to research the undead in the hope of finding a solution to the problem. This base consists of civilians working towards this goal and soldiers assigned to protect them. After a long time of stagnation, however, tensions are high between the soldiers and the civilians. After the death of the previous commander the base now falls under the tyrannical rule of Captain Rhodes (played to perfection by Joseph Pilato – who previously served as an assistant to Tom Savini on Dawn of the Dead). Captain Rhodes and his few soldiers are the villains of this film – the zombies are little more than a background threat. The undead are a force worth worrying about if the people at this base aren’t working together – and because of Rhodes’ cruelty there is no camaraderie; only fear.