Unfairly labeled the crippled stepchild of Romero’s zombie trilogy, Day of the Dead may be the most flawed in the series, but it’s also the most ambitious. Like Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, Romero’s trilogy works best when viewed as one grand work, and Day of the Dead is a crucial cog in what Romero’s trying to do with the whole thing. Beginning with Night of the Living Dead, Romero’s spinning a story about humanity as well as the undead. He’s not just aiming for scares and gore, but social commentary as well. Though I’ve labeled this review as being just for Day, it really encompasses all three films, their goals, and how they play into each other. As Romero begins each picture presuming that you’ve already seen the previous one(s), you’d do well to watch them in order (and during a short time span).
Night of the Living Dead takes place in an abandoned house in the woods, where several stragglers attempt to ward off a slew of zombies. Their origin is unknown, as is the precise results of their sluggish attacks. Like Ridley Scott’s Alien, Night of the Living Dead relies mostly on atmosphere, slow pacing, and selective use of music to terrify. Conversely, Dawn of the Dead is much closer to James Cameron’s Aliens in approach: it’s a nonstop sugar rush. Set in an undead-infested shopping mall, it follows a small group that’s aiming to both destroy and escape the zombies. Much of Dawn is a fascinating look at human nature; frequently, the men put themselves at risk unnecessarily by sprinting past the creatures, laughing giddily while doing so. Why? The desire for challenge is embedded deeply in our soul, the circumstances immaterial. That darting past flesh-eating zombies might not be the wisest move in the world isn’t the point; the need to win in some form overcomes rationality quite frequently. Since mass genocide is too ambitious a task, short bursts of success must do.
Though Night of the Living Dead hints at what’s happening in the world with brief news broadcasts, it never touches on the zombies’ origin in any meaty fashion. Dawn of the Dead similarly evades the question, focusing instead on the here and now, a small scope. This doesn’t negatively reflect on Romero’s ambition, though. His intentions become much clearer when you analyze the three pictures in succession, and that’s where Day of the Dead comes in. On a small island, a team of scientists and military personnel are trapped in a facility. Zombies have overrun the town, fields, and caves, and as the newspaper to the right hints at, apparently the world (note the headline, “THE DEAD WALK!”) The windy streets reek of loneliness and despair, as do the howls of the undead prowling for flesh. It’s a chilling opening, but it once again raises the question of how this epidemic began, and just how pervasive it it. Well…
…Romero never specifically addresses just how vast this infestation has spread. Is it worldwide? Nationwide? We don’t find out, and I believe that’s because it’s inconsequential. Romero made these films expecting us to accept the world as it’s presented. The primary question he’s asking is, “What would you do if presented by this type of adversity?” It’s a fascinating topic, one that becomes more and more interesting as different scenarios are presented throughout the three films. From the creaky house in Night to the mall in Dawn to the solid brick facility in Day, the settings beg questions and invoke different responses in the characters. Despite the 17 years between Night and Day, it appears that Romero had a clear vision of natural progression. As the zombies evolve, so does the story. It’s fantastic direction.
Romero does begin to explore how the zombies function, as well as touch on the idea that they can be domesticated. Because of this, Day of the Dead is definitely the talkiest of the trilogy, which I suspect is part of why its reputation is so much lower than its predecessors. Bub the zombie, seen right, is tamed by loony Dr. Logan, to the point that he can identify many appliances and items that he knew in life. This angle isn’t fully successful—Romero doesn’t go far enough with it, so it’s unclear precisely how Logan was able to domesticate a creature that appears to now run almost exclusively on motor instincts (this is also discussed in Day). It’s an intriguing concept, but we sometimes feel shortchanged by the follow-up. Considering that Dawn was 30 minutes longer than Day, perhaps Romero should have tacked on some time and exposition to Day of the Dead to better handle all the questions it raises.
Ironically, Day of the Dead is the goriest of the three in addition to being the most dialogue driven. Huge chunks of flesh and intestines are ripped out on multiple occasions. In Kill Bill form, the violence in Day (as well as Dawn) is pretty cartoonish. Romero’s approach here is twofold Firstly, he reminds us that this isn’t real, nor is it supposed to be. Rather, the zombies and bloodiness are merely a backdrop for Romero’s thematic portrayals. Secondly, the extreme carnage raises more questions on the undead transformation; are they given some kind of inane strength after death? Under lesser direction, scenes like the Captain being ripped apart would come across as little more than rubbish, but Romero so deftly plunges us into his world that every ideal and potential solution becomes food for thought.
Along with all its intrigue and wild theorizing, Day of the Dead is never boring, and has many scenes that match Dawn of the Dead in the energy & suspense department. Despite its numerous strengths, Day of the Dead does have several problems. For instance, the leads in Night and Dawn are black. In those pictures, there’s an effortless commanding presence in their characters that doesn’t feel like Romero threw them in to satisfy the politically correct crowd. The Jamaican pilot in Day, however, does feel like the “token black guy,” hurting the odd authenticity that permeates throughout much of the franchise. Many of the other folks (the angry Military captain, the mad scientist, etc) are somewhat clichéd, relying on the wordy script to carry them. There’s also an ending that nearly ruins the entire picture, until the final shot insures us that, “no, he didn’t really do THAT!” Thank GOD (you’ll see). All in all, though, Day of the Dead represents a smart and worthy finale to a superb trilogy. If rarely *scary* in the accepted sense, it’s eerily thought-provoking and never dull. What more can you ask from a genre that normally relies on cheap gags and shock value?