Day of the Dead

Day of the Dead (1985)

Day of the Dead first published by Movie Gazette, 26 Feb 2004

Three films, three different decades, thousands of walking dead. George A. Romero’s zombie trilogy, known to its adoring fans as the ‘Holy Trinity’, has proved the most influential horror franchise ever, with its winning combination of intelligent social commentary, high dramatic tension and flesh-ripping gore. Night of the Living Dead (1968) unearthed the racial and intergenerational tensions of the Sixties, Dawn of the Dead (1978) the mindless consumerism of the Seventies, and the last in the sequence, Day of the Dead, brings the macho fascism of Reagan’s Eighties to the cold light of day – but the consistent message of Romero’s agitprop splatter has been that a small group of humans can be far more divided, vicious and bestial than any number of ravenous undead.

As Day of the Dead opens, zombies have already taken over the world. Sarah (Lori Cardille) is the only woman in a group holed up in the underground Seminole Storage Facility in the hope that their research will find a key to defeating or controlling the ubiquitous zombies. The chief scientist, Dr ‘Frankenstein’ Logan (Richard Liberty), wants to domesticate the undead, and has had some success with star pupil ‘Bob’ (Howard Sherman) – but the soldiers who had been assigned to protect the scientists are starting to take over the operation, as their power-hungry leader Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato) grows increasingly psychotic. Sarah turns for help to chilled helicopter pilot John (Terry Alexander) and alcoholic electronics specialist Bill (Jarlath Conroy), who both have tried to keep themselves apart from the tensions in the group, but can no longer avoid taking what might be humanity’s last stand.

All three films follow tiny pockets of isolated people as they try (and mostly fail) to survive, but whereas the first two are occasionally punctuated at least by emergency radio signals or confused television broadcasts from the outside world, in Day of the Dead there is no sign of life beyond the narrow confines of the twelve main players, making it a far bleaker evocation of apocalyptic desperation. “All the shopping malls are closed”, as Bill puts it, in unwitting allusion to the principal setting of Dawn of the Dead which, compared to this cavelike facility, now seems to have been positively luxurious. Everything in Day of the Dead is pervaded with a sense of utter hopelessness. Sarah’s claustrophobic nightmares are almost indistinguishable from her real circumstances, Logan’s experiments require a horrific ingredient whose supply is impossibly limited, the ‘logic’ of the soldiers’ plan for survival seems to involve letting everyone else (including Sarah who, as the only remaining woman, is key to the possibility of a future for the human species) die, food and ammunition are running low, the ranks of the living are rapidly dwindling, and an overwhelming number of zombies is closing in for a final feasting.

Day of the Dead is a grimly fitting conclusion to the trilogy, outdoing the gut-wrenching outrageousness of its predecessors as it shows the last remains of humankind being torn apart – in some cases very literally. Even if Romero dies before making his long awaited Twilight of the Dead [in fact he would go on to make Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007) and Survival of the Dead (2009) before his death in 2017], the legacy of his zombie films will live on, mutating and multiplying in their influence. No future is more appropriate.

Strap: George A. Romero’s zombie apocalypse trilogy closer is a grim, gory vision of humanity being torn apart.

Anton Bitel