Judge Patrick Naugle is a true Dead-head.
The darkest day of horror the world has ever known.
The world has come to an abrupt end, as a group of military scientists and specialists fortify themselves in an underground bunker during the zombie apocalypse. As the scientists, including the strong willed Sarah (Lori Cardille), try to cure the living dead uprising, the military soldiers begin to lose their humanity, forcefully led by the sadistic Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato). As time and resources dwindle, Captain Rhodes puts the pressure on Dr. "Frankenstein" Logan (Richard Liberty) who takes a liking to a specific zombie named 'Bub' (Howard Sherman. Bub begins to show a rudimentary sense of humanity, seeing Dr. Logan not as his next meal but sort of a father figure. As Rhodes begins to lose his sanity, Sarah believes the only way to survive is to escape their underground fortress and move to higher ground.
Director George A. Romero once noted there are those who can't get away from their love of 1968's classic Night of the Living Dead, and those who celebrate and party with 1978's splatter sequel Dawn of the Dead. Then, Romero cackled, "there are the real trolls" who love 1985's dark and dirty Day of the Dead.
I am one of those trolls.
1985 was a banner year for zombie lovers…at least this zombie lover. My two favorite films were released that summer: Dan O'Bannon's superior horror-comedy Return of the Living Dead (a rip-off/homage to Romero's films) and Romero's long awaited follow-up, Day of the Dead. While the former was hailed as a critically acclaimed punk rock gore show, the latter was seen as a nasty conclusion to Romero's series (with no characters connecting to previous films due to legal restrictions), filled with bickering humans and a nihilistic sense of despair. Day of the Dead faltered at the box office and was dismissed, relegated to the home video market to die an undignified death.
However, much like the rotting corpses that populate the film, Day of the Dead found new life on VHS and DVD, rediscovered by new horror fans and those who had (unfairly) dismissed it during its theatrical run. The movie became popular enough that a terribly executed 2008 remake sprang forth (directed by Halloween: H20's Steve Miner) and rumors have floated around the Internet that a second re-imagining is in the works. For all intents and purposes, Day of the Dead has been the little movie that could. Time has been kind to the film and many viewers now see its worth not just as a zombie movie but as an allegory for humanity's inability to work together even when its in the pursuit of a common goal. The parallels to our own nation and government are even more glaring now than they were almost thirty years ago.
I've seen Day of the Dead dozens of times; it's a heavy, despair laden film that doesn't skimp on the zombie action and features characters that are generally cantankerous and ugly. Then again, what else would you expect when the world has come to an abrupt end? The last of humanity is holed up inside of a bunker as they futilely try to come up with a solution to the living dead that have totally overrun the planet. Critics have accused Day of the Dead of being unpleasant and depressing. Time has proven that while that may be true, those are the qualities that make Day of the Dead work so well. Instead of the film trying to walk a standard line of people needing to get from point A to point B, Day of the Dead is a claustrophobic nightmare of a story. Romero made the wise decision to seek out a truly awful setting for the film, mainly an underground mine shaft turned storage in Pennsylvania. The below ground limestone facility used in Day of the Dead is as much a character as the flesh and blood humans; filled with dripping corridors and creepy caverns, the settings are wholly original and make for an unsettling 'last resort' for humanity.
One of the more unique aspects of Day of the Dead is the fact that the bulk of the cast is not just unlikable, but downright despicable. The group of military soldiers (which includes KNB effects master Greg Nicotero) and scientists (featuring Richard Liberty's daffy Dr. "Frankenstein" Logan) are all so stressed that they seem to have lost most of their external social skills and pleasantries. A barking Joseph Pilato is almost as terrifying as the zombies as the sadistic Capt. Rhodes, all blustering anger and pulsating forehead veins, spouting dialogue that would funny if his delivery weren't so terrifying ("I'm running this monkey farm now, Frankenstein!"). Lori Cardille (who's father had a role in the original 1968 Night of the Living Dead) plays the tough as nails Sarah, who is the most relatable human in the film, and even that's a bit of a stretch; her icy demeanor still keeps her at arm's length from the viewer. The most compelling character is Bub the zombie, executed strikingly by Howard Sherman. Bub slowly begins to regain what made him human, including saluting an officer and flipping through an old paperback book (by Stephen King, natch). It's actually a sublime, nuanced performance and one of the best ever presented in a horror film.
Day of the Dead (Blu-ray) Collector's Edition is supposed to sport a new transfer, but frankly I don't see a whole lot of difference between Shout! Factory's 1.85:1/1080p HD remastering and the original Anchor Bay release from a few years back. The film looks good, but retains a softness that's inherent to its low budget roots. Certainly this is the best Day of the Dead has ever looked, but whatever differences there are in the image are minimal at best. The DTS-HD 1.0 Master Audio mix sounds pretty much like any mono track. There isn't much in the way of dynamic range, which is representative of the 1985 mix since surround sound wasn't really utilized back then for smaller films. No alternate language tracks or subtitles are included.
Bonus features include a commentary from writer/director George A. Romero, F/X master Tom Savini, production designer Celtus Anderson, and actress Lori Cardille, some behind-the-scenes footage from Tom Savini, a Wampum Mine promo video, a second look at the mines ("Underground: A Look into The Day of the Dead Mines"), some trailers, TV spots, and a still gallery. The highlight of this set is a feature length retrospective titled "World's End: The Legacy of Day of the Dead" which includes all new interviews with Romero, Joseph Pilato, Tom Savini, and many other cast and crew members.
It's hard for me to identify with the faults others see in Day of the Dead. Critics have slammed it for being too talky, but the dialogue crackles and is never dull. Some have noted the gore effects go over the top (this is truly Tom Savini's pièce de résistance), but what else do you want from a movie about the living dead? I highly recommend Day of the Dead. It's easily my favorite of his six zombie films, and a worthy inclusion to any horror movie collection.
A gory, gruesome, downright great horror movie. Kudos to Shout! Factory for
giving it the love it deserves.
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