October 11, 2009

DAY OF THE DEAD (1986) - George Romero's best zombies

(1986, USA)

I'm a huge fan of Dawn, but Day is a better film

I find it hard to review my very favourite films objectively, but here goes.

After being seriously wowed by George Romero's classic Zombies: Dawn of the Dead (1978), even in the censored form that hit UK cinemas and then home video, I was anticipating that this follow-up would be a huge draw. I saw Day of the Dead at one of the hugest screens in the country (the Odeon, Norwich) and was vastly impressed, though it was a largely empty cinema. It was a shock to see it so poorly received, at a time when the country was booming with VHS rentals rather than cinema-going.

The 'living dead trilogy' (as it was called before Land of the Dead ushered in Romero's new batch of Deads) marked three decades with a progression in the zombie's history of mindless world domination. The first was a local phenomenon, the second was when the tide turned, and in the third the Dead rule the planet.

These were the days when zombies only shuffled (though they seem to move a little faster when a meal is close). They may be slow, but win through force of numbers. Another method Romero used to add zombie threat was by placing victims in confined spaces, like a basement, an apartment block or the corridors of a shopping mall.

It was all the more claustrophobic in Day of the Dead, when our heroes are trapped underground in a maze of caverns with only one entrance. I thought the corral, the cave where the zombie 'guinea pigs' await experimentation, was the ultimate in zombie nightmares - being trapped in the dark with hungry flesh-eaters hidden in a maze of tunnels - I still get tense when the soldiers have to use the corral gates to retrieve zombies for experimentation, under orders to get real close to them.

In each film in the trilogy, Romero's film-making skills evolved, as did his female characters. The leading women went from traumatised victim, to equality-seeking girlfriend, to level-headed alpha female. Here Lori Cardille represents the strongest female lead in the first Dead cycle (tricycle?) as a scientist who's also handy with a rifle. The movie starts with an excellent scene (shot in Fort Myers, Florida) showing a town over-run with zombies. I'd liked to have seen more scenes of city life, a taster of how I'd wished I Am Legend had been made.

As the dwindling numbers in a military project, to solve the zombie problem medically, lose another member, tensions rise between the soldiers and the scientists. Are they on the brink of a discovery, and are they going to be able to hold out long enough?

Dr 'Frankenstein' Logan (Richard Liberty) plays an obsessed but amusing mad scientist. He blinds the military with logic, defending himself from the trigger-happy Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato), who's impatiently in charge of what's left of the sex-starved soldiers. J
ohn Amplas (the star of Romero's Martin) provides sturdy support as one of the few sane minds left on the planet.

A special mention goes to Howard Sherman as Bub, the greatest ever zombie character of the movies, the first (slightly) domesticated zombie. A possible key to the survival of the human race... co-existence!

To me, Day of the Dead has Romero's most consistent cast, the best characters, the tightest story and script, and the goriest effects. Though the blood is used more sparingly, the shock effects are startling, setting a high benchmark for the genre.

While there's nothing quite as memorable to match the iconic shopping mall of Dawn of the Dead, the story flows logically as the remainder of humankind continue to tear each itself apart.

Make-up king Tom Savini excels at engineering the effects for Dr Frankenstein's nasty experiments, as he tries to surgically isolate what makes zombies tick. The gore is unbearably real, the zombies are by now in an advanced state of decay, the deaths are the nastiest yet.

The only false note for me was that the music was far less memorable. It did the job, but i was expecting another iconic Dawn of the Dead strength soundtrack. To me, the music of Goblin will always be the official theme tune for any post-apocalyptic zombie invasion.

I've got the Anchor Bay Divimax DVD edition (pictured), which has great extras, especially the documentary. Not sure that I want to see the gore any more clearly though, in the new Blu-Ray edition, but I bet Savini's FX remain undetectable.

The original widescreen trailer is here on YouTube, or here's a subtle teaser...


  1. I will never forget the first time I saw this movie. The beginning with the deserted city, the zombies, the alligator... a perfect beginning.

    Yeah, it's Romeros zombie-masterpiece. Some people say it's talky, but I don't agree. The characters are far from the usual Hollywood-stereotypes, and it makes the movie even better.

    And the gore. It's still amazing. Together with The Thing the best pratical effects I've ever seen in a movie from the eighties.

  2. Ever hear Jonathan Coulter's "Re Your Brains"? Here's his description of the song:

    "If Hollywood has taught us anything, it’s that being trapped in a mall surrounded by a million zombies would be really troublesome. But how much more annoying would it be if the head zombie used to be your co-worker, and he was kind of a prick even before he got infected? And now he’s right outside and he just keeps talking and talking - still the same jackass, only now he wants to eat your brains?"

    You can listen to it here:


    Scroll down to the album "Thing a Week Two" and Brains is last. Click the play arrow....

  3. Love this film. I saw it as a teenager and had never seen any horror movie so intensely claustrophobic. You're right about the score; too '80s indeed!

  4. This deconstruction is so thorough and encompassing that the climactic explosion of zombie mayhem - revealing and awesome though it is - is practically an afterthought.

  5. Thanks for sharing your impressions. Frankly speaking I am not a fan of horror films but I had to prepare an essay paper on this topic and I liked your post and review of the film that is why I’m going to watch the movie.

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  7. nice post.. you guys made me remember Zombieland(movie)

  8. While zombie films are everywhere now, ZOMBIELAND stands (decapitated) head and shoulders above the others! I haven't reviewed it because everyone else has!

  9. Day of the dead is a classic and always will be. I would like to see something new this year come out.

  10. I just had this argument with another website with a person who calls their self confusedmushroom thanks for helping me prove my point, I hope he reads your blog. To me Day of the Dead is the greatest zombie flick of all time, unlike you I never got the chance to see it on a big screen the film had a low distribution and was not shown in my area it was years before I got the chance to watch it and when I did it blew my mind, It was also Romero's favorite.