I never knew there had been any sequels to Night of the Living Dead until I did a middle school project on Mel Brooks. My mom bought me this thick, red book on Hollywood covering its history and periods to help me. Skimming through it, film critic Mark Kermode had a section on 80s horror films. He devoted a paragraph or two discussing Day of the Dead (1985), calling it a "supremely intelligent festival of gore" and praising director George Romero's allegorical, multi-layered script. I was stunned. Up until then, I had hated horror movies, and here was a respected scholar praising one for being deep. Before I saw it, Day of the Dead had changed my view of horror films.
Since the dead began to walk, society has been completely overrun. One scientist estimates 400,000 zombies for every human. The only people we see left are a small group of scientists and soldiers hiding in an underground bunker. The scientists, led by Dr. "Frankenstein" Logan (Richard Liberty), seek a solution. Logan believes training the zombies, teaching them to be docile, is the answer. He's making progress with Bub (Howard Sherman), a zombie who remembers aspects of his former life. The soldiers, led by Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato), who has just assumed command following the death of the previous commanding officer, are growing agitated and violent. They want results. Sarah (Lori Cardille), another scientist, has the misfortune of being the only woman left and endures constant innuendo and harassment. The situation is a powder keg ready to go off.
1985 was really an incredible year for comedy horror. Dan O'Bannon's The Return of the Living Dead is a hilarious spoof with a punk attitude that turned the zombie rules on their head, Re-Animator is Stuart Gordon's outrageously comic take on H.P Lovecraft, and Fright Night sees late-night horror host Roddy McDowell fighting a real vampire. But Day of the Dead is not comedic. It's much bleaker and less fun, especially compared to its predecessor, Dawn of the Dead (1978), a wild, comic-book style adventure and satire. Given the type of horror succeeding at the box office at the time, along with expectations of Romero's previous work (and reports of a comprised script due to budget concerns), it's no surprise Day was regarded as the black sheep of the series, but I'll say it's my favorite of Romero's work.
Romero has said in interviews each of his zombie movies represent a snapshot of the decades they were made in. Night came out in the late 60s during the Civil Rights Movement, race riots, and the Vietnam War. Dawn covers the disco decade and the rampant materialism and consumerism just starting to run amok. Day is aimed at the jingoistic and militaristic mindset of the Ronald Regan decade. The bunker, located in an abandoned nuclear missile silo and Seminole storage facility, contains the relics of the long-gone human civilization: financial records, boats, trailers, film negatives. As the helicopter pilot John (Terry Alexander) says, the place is a "14-mile tombstone." In this case, it's a tombstone for a dead and buried society. Everything you need to know about humanity can be found in this enclave, including human behavior.
The scientists work endlessly, but even if they find anything, they won't be able to report it to anyone. Logan trains Bub, but does he honestly think he can train thousands of zombies? The military, brash and aggressive, with all its weaponry, is blunted. They can't hope to shoot every zombie, so they take it out on the scientists. The image of an empty silo symbolizes how ineffective the military's power and strength really was. Even in an unwinnable situation, the scientists and soldiers cling to outdated behavior and turn on each other. These people don't work together, and as in Romero's other work, that inability to unite for a common cause leads to their downfall. Rhodes is a tyrannical bully who only grows more paranoid and psychotic while Logan, well, he lives up to his nickname. Characters quarrel, bicker, fight, and kill each other. Man is the monster living in the shadowy graveyard while the undead amble down main street in broad daylight. This is emphasized further by Bub. As the remnants of humanity descend into barbarism, a zombie grows more civilized. In the final confrontation with Rhodes, Bub is clearly the hero.
The movie's not perfect. After an awe-inspiring opening sequence, including a nightmare and visit to a ruin city, the pace drags for about half the movie. Most of the characters are completely unlikeable, and it seems we spend too much time watching them bicker endlessly, re-establishing what we already know. The dialogue has its moments ("Choke on 'em!"), but it's not very good and loaded with unnecessary profanity. Rhodes, despite being the villain and carrying out a number of his threats, is so over-the-top, he's hard to take serious, although that might have been the intent (his men obey his rank, but they don't seem to respect him).
The gore and makeup effects by Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead, Friday the 13th, etc.) are outstanding. Some really disgusting stuff happens to people. The bite wounds remain unmatched by anything in zombie movies since. The setting is overwhelmingly claustrophobic and dark, and the training scenes with Bub are some my favorites.
As much as I love the film, I wish there was more to it: more action, more of Logan's experiments, and more complexity to the characters. But what's there is great. It's dark, intense, and thought-provoking. Some people find it slow and repetitive, but it stands as one of my favorite zombie movies.