Day of the Dead, the third film in George A. Romero’s original zombie trilogy, is a lot darker and psychologically more claustrophobic than his previous films. In the last film, civilians holed themselves up in a large shopping mall in Dawn of the Dead. They defended the mall from the rooftops and used the shops themselves to keep the zombies out. A great concept. But now, people have gone underground. In a secret underground military base, scientists try to find clues to making the zombies behave themselves.
Now, the zombie plague has spread so far and wide that most normal humans have disappeared. The first scene shows this very strikingly, as a small team flies to Miami to search for survivors. All they discover are zombies, shuffling between the alligators. We follow a small team of scientists as they try to understand the zombie condition. This is a nice excuse for Romero to dissect zombie bodies. In general, this third film is much more gruesome than its predecessors. We see all sort of organs falling out of zombies and liters of blood and guts everywhere. Heads are halfway gone and everything is rotting. Romero tried to push the limits of gore.
I called this film claustrophobic, because the scientists are stuck in an underground base with a team of overacting lunatics. Joe Pilato plays an overacting commander who is there to protect the scientists but he quickly takes control as a military dictator. All his scenes contain shouting matches about any topic that comes up. He’s constantly angry and constantly feels threatened in his command. His fellow soldiers are similarly a bunch of morons who do nothing but shout and laugh hysterically. The characterization in this film is sure to divide people into those who dismiss the film and those who find enjoyment in this terribly unrealistic overacting. It took me a while to accept it for what it is.
The toughest job of all is for Sarah (Lori Cardille), the only woman in the bunker and the heroine of the tale. She has to keep her ground as the action hero and preferably make it out alive when everything starts going pear-shaped. Her fellow researcher Dr. Logan sounds smart, but would not make it past an ethics committee, were that still to exist. He tries to train a zombie (named “bub”), who is perhaps the most memorable character of the film. Now nobody is right in the head, and it is time for the smarted people to bail from this underground nightmare.
The whole film is about lack of communication. The soldiers won’t listen to what the scientists are trying to say. The commander never shows any respect nor takes anything seriously what they are saying. The scientists also have trouble explaining what they are doing and squabble amongst themselves. The mistrust is a centrifugal force that rips the little community apart. Funnily enough, the professor can make successful communication with his zombie Bub. Only a zombie shows a real human connection with another person.
Romero struggled with budget cuts throughout this project. It’s probably the reason why most of the film is set in a single mining facility, although that does make the story nicely focused. Also, Joe Pilato got the role as commander because he wasn’t that expensive. Even though the budget was limited, the special effects still hold up pretty well, and the film even won some awards for them. Especially the climax is a “feast” for the eyes.
Day of the Dead is still quite excellent. Its capacity for thrill has diminished but there’s enough character to this film that it still makes for an entertaining evening. There are lots of comedic moments, good shots and gruesome effects to grimace at. Pilato gives quite a show, Bub the zombie tugs at the heartstrings and Cardille is a strong, admirable female hero. Only the upbeat synthesizer music sounds horribly out of place. It’s hard to take this movie seriously, but it’s compelling enough to keep watching.