Completing the original trilogy of George A Romero’s Dead Series is the 1985 film Day of the Dead. Originally he had planned for Day of the Dead to be a sweeping epic zombie film, described as “the Gone with the Wind of zombie films,” unfortunately budget limitations forced him to reconsider and eventually scale back production and script. It was released to an excellent commercial reaction and took $35m at the box office from a tiny budget of $3.5m. Romero would leave the dead series alone after Day of the Dead for 20 years before releasing Land of the Dead, which formed the first part of a new trilogy.
After the events of Dawn of the Dead, the human race has been almost completely destroyed and zombies rule the Earth. Small pockets of resistance remain, and in Fort Myers, Florida Dr. Sarah Bowmen (Lori Cardille) finds herself escaping Day of the Dead’s zombie horde by entering a fortified, underground military facility. There she meets a small team of scientists, led by the somewhat unhinged genius Dr. Matthew ‘Frankenstein’ Logan (Richard Liberty) who is experimenting with the living dead in hopes of training them to do simple tasks and not attack humans. He is guarded by an increasingly aggressive unit of soldiers, led by Captain Rhodes (Joseph Pilato). Eventually the two factions begin to argue as life underground takes its toll.
If Night of the Living Dead gave Romero the opportunity to comment upon the Civil Rights Movement, and Dawn of the Dead looked at the spread of consumerism and the impact of the Vietnam War, then Day of the Dead is surely a satirical look at the way nations dealt with each other in the 1980s. There are four distinct groups, the military, the relaxed scientists, the mad scientists and the zombies, each has its own agenda and Day of the Dead explores the way that they interact. The zombies are a wonderful interpretation of the Soviet Union and then within the survivors there is constant quarreling and bickering about the best way to deal with this threat.
The era of the 1980s may not be as easily mirrored in the case of Romero’s classic zombie apocalypse as the 1960s or 1970s, but the result, considering the budget limitations is nothing short of staggering. It replaces the personal home invasion of Night of the Living Dead and the epic nature of the mall in Dawn of the Dead, with a cold military facility filled with diametrically opposed factions, all pulling for the same goal of survival but with hugely different methods. The performances from Cardille, Pilato and Liberty are fantastic, and each presents a strong arguement for their own approach without there being an overwhelmingly obvious hero, and their indecision and inability to communicate eventually becomes their societies unravelling. But the real star of Day of the Dead, surprisingly is the leader of the zombie faction, an undead character called Bub (Sherman Howard).
Dr. Logan’s experimentation focuses on Bub, a zombie with whom the doctor has made incredible progress in teaching basic tasks. He has learnt that it is instinct that leads the zombies to eat humans even though they have no way of digesting the food, or in fact any need for the sustenance. Howard does an incredible job of giving life to what could be any other zombie, and with a lack of a strong protagonist, it is Bub whom the audience oddly route for toward the end. Romero does an incredible job of giving Day of the Dead‘s named zombie a place within the mini-society and it is one that becomes the most memorable and affecting in the whole film. Arguably the weakest of the original trilogy, Day of the Dead is still a standout zombie film, filled with pathos, social commentary and deep-thinking parody. Romero would struggle to recapture this level of quality in further installments, but he successfully completes his three decade trilogy with the style and impact of the previous two installments.