In many respects, 1985’s “Day of the Dead” is a much better movie than its predecessor, 1978’s “Dawn of the Dead”. With “Day” series creator George Romero shows vast improvements in writing and directing abilities. His script is so good, in fact, that the whole premise for “Day” was recently remade (without due credit) into the British horror movie “28 Days Later”, which despite improving on the visuals and adding a few dozen million or so to the budget, is nevertheless still a far inferior film. (Yes, I know, I’ve nearly kicked the “28 Days” relationship nearly to death, but such an obvious and blatant theft deserves to be kicked until the thieves in question acknowledge it. Do you hear me, Danny boy?)
In “Day of the Dead” the living dead have essentially overrun the world. The movie opens with armed civilians, led by touch chick Sarah (Lori Cardille), touching down in a coastal city by way of helicopter. Finding the city infested with zombies, the crew returns to an underground military base where they have been staying. The base is run by a small band of Army soldiers led by Rhodes (Joseph Pilato) and Logan (Richard Liberty), a civilian doctor experimenting in ways to “control” the zombies. It’s the job of Rhodes and his men to protect and assist Logan, Sarah, and another scientist, but with the U.S. Government essentially crumbled, it doesn’t take long before Rhodes start to realize that they’re wasting their time.
With a tight script and a cast of good actors, writer/director George Romero has crafted an intense drama about powerful personalities clashing. There are three separate factions living in the underground complex: the soldiers, who are quickly losing their patience; the scientists, led by the slightly insane Logan, who the soldiers nickname “Frankenstein”; and Sarah and two other civilians, a helicopter pilot and a radio operator. Anthony Dileo plays Miguel, one of the soldiers and Sarah’s lover, who is starting to lose more than just his mind. It’s only a matter of time before the fuse blows and it’s every man for himself.
At the center of the movie is Lori Cardille’s Sarah, perhaps the toughest, mentally speaking, of the whole group. With her background in science, Sarah seeks to maintain law and order among the survivors, even as they start breaking off into different factions. The screenplay treats Sarah’s relationship with the brittle Miguel as complex, and for most of the film we wonder why Sarah is so dedicated to the hapless man. In the end, we realize it’s not Miguel that Sarah is dedicated to, but the idea of control, of normality. Because for tough Sarah, the end of the world means a breakdown in all the things she cherishes as a scientist.
If there is one fault in the screenplay it’s that the soldiers, led by the overacting Steel (Gary Howard Klar), gets a bit silly at times. Among the survivors, it seems impossible that the soldiers would “break down” first, and break down so badly. Whatever happened to the mental and physical toughness pounded into them at boot camp and during their military service? Would real soldiers really break down this fast? I think not.
Although “Day” delivers on the gore and zombie violence, there might not be enough of both for some gore fiends out there. With the exception of the soldiers, who are one-note from beginning to end, “Day” spends a lot of time with the other characters. The ending is, without question, a bloody feast as the zombies finally break into the underground bunker. But then again, I’m sure you knew it was coming. As for social commentary, there’s plenty to be had. Besides the overreaching theme of man as being man’s most dangerous enemy, Romero brings home the notion of messing with nature — even if nature happens to be of the living dead variety.
“Day of the Dead” has a lot going for it. And had the soldiers been written as more believable and not so cartoonish, “Day” might have given “Night of the Living Dead” a run for the title of best movie in Romero’s “Dead” trilogy.
George A. Romero (director) / George A. Romero (screenplay)
CAST: Lori Cardille …. Sarah
Terry Alexander …. John
Joseph Pilato …. Capt. Rhodes
Jarlath Conroy …. William
Anthony Dileo Jr. …. Pvt. Miguel Salazar
Richard Liberty …. Dr. Logan